In North American professional sports culture, parades are typically organized by cities and organizations after a major team accomplishment, such as winning a league championship. On Saturday, January 6, 2018, however, thousands of Cleveland Browns fans, in response to their team’s failure to register a win during the National Football League’s (NFL) 2017 regular season, congregated near FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio to “celebrate” the Browns’ “perfect season” record of 0-16. The fans braved frigid January temperatures, creating satirical floats, signs, and costumes to publicly mock team owner Jimmy Haslam—CEO of the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain, a company embroiled in an FBI investigation concerning rebate fraud—and the team’s consistent lack of success in the NFL. Parade organizer Chris McNeill described the event as a protest expressed through “macabre-humor”: “I think we have every right,” McNeill said, “after this organization has given us nothing now for how many years.” The parade, thankfully, benefitted the local community in ways other than creative celebration, as event promoters raised over $17,000 and collected perishable food donations, all of which were subsequently donated to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
The parade was met with disdain from other local fans, journalists, and Browns players, unsurprising given the centrality of competitiveness and virtues of “winning” in modern American sporting ideology. Multiple Browns players publicly expressed their opposition to the parade, with defensive lineman Emmanuel Ogbah declaring on Twitter, “That parade is a joke don’t call yourself a true Browns fan if you go to that thing!” Local fans buttressed Ogbah’s scorn, with their perceptions of fandom implicitly separating the parade goers from “true fans” who presumably devote their full financial and emotional support to the professional franchise regardless of outcome. Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board member Ted Diadiun criticized the parade’s objective via a subtle jab at fans who associate the success of professional sports team with their sense of identity: “[U]nlike a lot of folks who were out there, I don’t measure my sense of self-worth in accordance with whether the team on the field…wins or loses.” Others sided with the parade goers as part of a condemnation of the team’s overall performance, with Cleveland.com columnist Bud Shaw declaring “if people who’ve had so little to smile about want to get together as a community and protest a team that has offered them so little to cheer about since 1999, I get it.”
Whether in support and condemnation, local media commentary on the parade defined Browns fandom in relation to athletic and team success. Thus, the discussion centered on whether parade goers should protest the lack of cultural status or “compensation” the fans have received from supporting the Browns, and whether such protesting was indicative of being a “true fan.” Is a true Browns fan one who gets angry at the franchise’s management, impatient for team success? Or is a true fan one who has an undying financial, social, and emotional support for the team and its players? Both definitions, however, assumed an individual’s productive loyalty to the team brand, whether in anger or support.
Lost in the coverage was how the parade served as a locally meaningful, creative form of fan expression and celebration—a potential method of crafting a sporting social identity that expresses team loyalty, yet mocks team owners and operates peripheral to corporate and league-sanctioned business. Alternative forms of expression are more common within European and global sports fan (sub)cultures, but are relatively rare in North American pro sports where consumerism and fan identity are increasingly interwoven. In Cleveland, however, fans organized a parade unaffiliated and disassociated with the Browns organization, congregating in each other’s company for reasons unrelated to the NFL’s revenue generation streams. No tickets or officially sanctioned fan apparel was needed, only a fan’s ability to parody Browns ownership. This is not to romanticize the parade as a radical form of fan expression challenging the hegemony of the NFL or the Browns organization—the organizers were not seeking to boycott or end their support of the team, and many were still season ticket holders and consumers of Browns-related products. Moreover, the event reproduced the gender and sexual politics prevalent within American sports by holding a contest for a parade queen.
Yet, by openly mocking team ownership through a locally organized event disconnected from the team’s and NFL’s methods of revenue generation, parade-goers re-shaped their definitions of Browns fandom in a way that allowed them to have a locally meaningful expression of their sporting identity while publicly parodying team owners and management.
By focusing on questions of what constitutes a “true Browns fan,” much of the media coverage prevented a more critical conversation on how such events illuminate the common interests between fan and player, and the irony that team owners continue to accumulate enormous wealth regardless of team performance. “Owners got fat checks from the league’s television revenue sharing plan,” Cleveland columnist Mark Naymik wrote. “Fans got…an 0-16 season.” Moreover, as Browns players criticized the parade as a “joke”, they inadvertently reinforced a definition of “true fandom” based on brand loyalty and seeing athletic labor as a sporting commodity. Meanwhile, the NFL and its teams continue to poorly protect players from head trauma (despite continual revisions to concussion “protocol”), and oppose player activism and social justice efforts.
We should remember that player protests were booed by stadiums of fans, illuminating the enduring racial tension between largely white fan bases and national sporting pastimes predominated by African American athletes. We should not romanticize the values of fan bases and conflicts between the owners and consumers of sporting capital without close attention to the racial, gender, and social politics involved. Nonetheless, the path towards a more inclusive, equitable, and humane national sporting culture requires the ability for fans to construct alternative forms of sporting identity that do not necessarily reproduce the values and logic of consumer capitalism. We should encourage fan bases to find locally significant ways of mocking the owners of professional sports and use those moments to foster critical conversations on the politics of professional sporting fandom and common interests between fan and player.
Samuel M Clevenger earned his PhD in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. His research focuses on the colonial politics of modern sport in American history, as well as the cultural and environment politics of modern urban planning. His research has been published in Urban Planning, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, and Sport, Education and Society.