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The Root, Root, Root of All Evil
On Deshaun Watson, Ben Roethlisberger, and the morality of sports fandom
Content warning: sexual violence
There are two broad categories of why you might root against a sports team: sports reasons and bigger-than-sports reasons.
Here’s an example of a sports reason: During the last NFL playoffs, I rooted against the Cincinnati Bengals because, as a Cleveland Browns fan, I was jealous of them. A year ago, it was popular to predict that a long-suffering Ohio team and their talented young quarterback would emerge from a lengthy rebuilding process to make a deep playoff run. But it was supposed to be Cleveland, not Cincinnati! Every big game the Bengals won on the road to the Super Bowl was a reminder that the Browns couldn’t even manage a winning record, let alone a playoff berth. It stung to watch Joe Burrow celebrate on the field while Baker Mayfield appeared only in insurance commercials.
Envy is a silly reason to want an otherwise generally likable underdog team to lose. In any other circumstance it would have been easy to root for the Bengals in the Super Bowl. But that’s what watching sports is supposed to be about: not logical or rational, just what gets you fired up.
Here’s an example of a bigger-than-sports reason: The branding of the Kansas City Chiefs makes many people viscerally uncomfortable. There’s the appropriative name, which can be deeply hurtful to Native Americans even if it’s not meant as an insult. There’s the Tomahawk Chop, which contrary to its defenders’ assertions is not a new grievance; it has been called out for its offensiveness for decades. There’s the very real chance that any time the camera pans across Arrowhead Stadium it will catch someone in redface, which hopefully does not need further elaboration about why it’s unacceptable. With apologies to Travis Kelce, it’s not fun to watch Kansas City play, even when they don’t win — it might be cathartic for a moment to see them come up short, but at the end of the day, losing a football game feels like an insignificant karmic consequence for enabling racism.
There is a crucial distinction between these categories, but the lines often get blurred. Fans often express larger-than-sports reasons in glib terms that sound like sports reasons. More importantly, those who support the team being resented frequently brush off bigger-than-sports critiques as razzing from their rivals. (If sports are not your forte, consider how partisans of all stripes dismiss their candidates’ problematic statements and actions as political smears; and the fact that your instinctive reaction to that claim was that at least your faction isn’t as bad as the other side is.)
Today the NFL announced that Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, whom the team acquired from the Houston Texans in March, has been suspended for the first six games of the 2022-23 season. Ordinarily, a team would be disappointed to lose its new star for a third of a season before he takes a single snap in his new uniform. But in this case team executives were probably jubilant, because the punishment could have — should have— been a lot worse.
At the time of the trade, Watson was facing 22 lawsuits for sexual assault and misconduct; the number of accusers has since increased to at least 30. (If you have the stomach for it, this New York Times piece contains the most-thorough breakdown I’ve seen of what he is alleged to have done.) I am loath to even indulge the bad-faith questions about his accusers’ veracity, but consider that if half of these women are lying that would leave 15 true stories, and that if 90 percent of the allegations are unfounded he would still be a serial offender.
From the beginning, every facet of the story made it clear how unseriously the Browns organization takes the allegations against Watson. Immediately after the trade, Cleveland signed Watson to a five-year, $230 million contract — the third-largest contract in the sport and the second-highest in annual salary. He cost the Browns their next three years of first-round picks, an implicit bet that he is the last piece of premium talent they will need anytime soon. The party line for his public rehabilitation was that Watson is now “humble, sincere, and candid” despite him continuing to deny the allegations against him (which of course precludes any plausible argument that he has taken responsibility for what he did).
While far from the most important piece of the story, to me the clearest example of the Browns condoning what Watson did was specifically structuring his new contract to minimize the financial penalties he would incur from his suspension, which had previously been speculated to be considerably longer than the six weeks he received. As a result, Watson will forfeit roughly $300,000 for his lost games this season, where it otherwise would have cost him about $16 million.
I happened to be wearing a Browns shirt the day they acquired Watson. When I saw the news, I promptly changed out of it. By both making Watson the face of the franchise and staking their organizational reputation on his character, the Browns have made it as hard as possible to rationalize cheering for them without also rooting for Watson personally. Their success is inextricably linked with his. Worse still, they have been so brazen about their disregard for the seriousness of sexual assault that it comes across as telling the fans: We don’t believe that you don’t want this.
As a diehard fan who watched every game of the Browns’ 0-16 season, I’ve spent the last few months wondering how I could possibly still support them. The moral issues here — Should Watson be the face of an NFL franchise? Has the team leadership shown any indication that they take sexual violence seriously? Do I want anyone involved in this fiasco to feel the acclaim and glory that comes with winning a championship? — are easy. But the practical questions for Cleveland fans are much harder because, as the Dawg Pound unfortunately knows from experience with a different rapist quarterback, rooting against a team for ethical reasons isn’t a fun way to engage with sports.
For as much as Browns fans hate the Baltimore Ravens for stealing the franchise from Cleveland, and may resent the Bengals for their recent success, their greatest rivals are the Pittsburgh Steelers. And for nearly two decades before his recent retirement (including the entirety of my era of being interested in football), the face of the Steelers franchise has been Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger has been credibly accused of two instances of sexual assault, one in 2008 and one in 2010. This is not revisionist history: while the former incident was largely swept under the rug, the latter resulted in a four-game suspension and even high-profile calls to cut him from the team. I am not qualified to assess what the social consequences should be for a public figure who commits such acts, and whether or how they can ever be forgiven. (Not that, as far as I’m aware, Roethlisberger has ever made an attempt at contrition that would impress anyone without a vested interest in absolving him.) But intentionally or not, the Steelers have sent a message over the years by burnishing the reputation of a man whom even the NFL acknowledged has done terrible things.
And so, the many, many times when Roethlisberger and the Steelers beat the Browns, which by nature of his fame and the importance of the QB position were frequently celebrated as Roethlisberger himself beating the Browns, were demoralizing beyond just losing a big game to a sports rival. The on-field plaudits felt like — and, in media narratives, sometimes explicitly bled into — referenda on Roethlisberger’s character. Meanwhile, raves about the Steelers organization’s continued success carried the clear implication that they had done well to ignore the terrible things their star player had done. Losing is never fun, but it’s downright miserable when you’ve ascribed moral judgment to the outcome.
Some would say the corollary to this is that beating such teams feels particularly sweet. And while that didn’t happen often for the Browns against Roethlisberger (just thrice in 29 games he started), the rare occasions when it did were indeed extra satisfying — but only for a moment. Because defeating your problematic foe on the gridiron doesn’t make them change their ways. It’s just a game, and when it’s over, the team’s business practices are still the same. The mascot is still racist. The quarterback is still a sex offender.
There’s a feeling of righteousness in seeing your rooting interest as a shorthand for your values, but tying your fandom to something bigger than the game ultimately means realizing that you have assigned grand moral value to events that are so much smaller than your ideals.
Many if not most of my Browns-fan friends renounced their Dawg Pound memberships when the team traded for Watson, and I have nothing but respect for that decision. In my disillusionment I’ve considered many options for a new favorite team: embracing my adopted-hometown Philadelphia Eagles, following Baker Mayfield to the Carolina Panthers, jumping on the Bengals bandwagon, or even deciding the enemy of my enemy is my friend and supporting the Ravens or the (now-Roethlisberger-less) Steelers. The problem with all of them, and the reason why I still can’t bring myself to take down the Browns paraphernalia around my desk, is that deciding to root against Cleveland means committing to watching football through the inevitably depressing lens of morality.
By no means am I suggesting that people should “stick to sports” and ignore larger social issues. Popular entertainment both reflects and is shaped by our society’s values; to pretend such cultural touchstones are apolitical is itself a political statement. We can and should expect more and better leadership from social institutions like the NFL. Yet when I imagine my hypothetical new favorite team playing the Browns, it feels less like a sports rivalry than medieval combat, where righteousness is divined from the result on the battlefield. Maybe the bad guys will prevail. Or maybe we’ll earn a fleetingly satisfying win before realizing it was ultimately an empty victory in the greater moral war.
As the NFL season kickoff looms, the only thing I’m sure of is that there’s no good answer for what Cleveland fans should do. I’ve increasingly come to believe that the very idea of a moral imperative is incompatible with sports fandom. Treating professional sports teams like avatars of more-important causes can lead to taking the former too seriously and even trivializing the latter. I don’t want Deshaun Watson to lift the Lombardi Trophy, but whom am I helping if I talk myself out of being excited by the thought of it parading through Public Square?
For several years, football has brought me joy. (To an extent — we are talking about the Browns, after all). The Deshaun Watson trade and the organization’s continuous disregard for the seriousness of sexual violence have disillusioned a large portion of the Dawg Pound far more than any 0-16 season could. As a result, countless fans have had to wrestle with their tolerance for dissonance between their principles and their rooting interests. Where’s the fun in that?
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