"These Are Not the Real Browns" and Other Lessons from a Visiting Sportswriter

Before he spent five days immersed in Cleveland sports culture a few weeks ago, Will Leitch's only experience in the city was at a 2:30 a.m. bus stop on his way to New York 14 years ago. ("Maybe not Cleveland's best side," he says.) This time, the writer for USA Today's Sports On Earth — who also founded Deadspin.com, wrote four books, and is a contributing editor of New York Magazine — came to learn about the town, take in the Browns opener, Indians games and the general life of a Cleveland sports fan during his "Leitch Across America" tour of American cities.

Doug Brown: The first city you went to was San Francisco, then you went to Cleveland. What's the premise of the series and how did you end up here?

Will Leitch: I really feel like you can learn a lot about a city and its people from its sports and its fan bases. That's certainly been the case for the two places I've gone so far. As a sports fan who grew up in the middle of nowhere then lived in New York City for 14 years and recently moving, I tended to be a little shut off from the rest of the country and really hadn't been anywhere. The way a lot of us generally know other towns is through sports. As a national writer, if you're not careful, you'll fall back on lazy subjects The idea of this series is to really go out and find out, to talk to a bunch of fans. As to why I went to Cleveland, I wrote a piece at the end of the NBA season about the most tortured fan bases in the NBA, and I actually ranked Cleveland No. 1 — and that's the third most popular team in town and the third most torturous team in town. It certainly seemed like a logical place to go.

I grew up outside of Ohio and, having lived in the area the past several years, Cleveland sports fans are the most fascinating group of fans with what they go through.

It's funny, the thing that really blew me away was this: they took away a team, they took away a team from Cleveland. It seems like such a drastic injustice that they actually made another team come and act like that team. It's very strange when you really think about it. The piece I wrote on the Browns, I called the teams an "avatar." This is not the Browns, it's this really crappy expansion team that's had a lousy owner and a perfectly kind okay, kind of mediocre stadium. In any other city, this product would be unacceptable. But it's the Browns. It's an avatar of this previous team that they loved so much and, to me, that speaks so much to the city and its people that they loved that old team so much that they will pretend that this thing is that. Because there is such history and such love of the old franchise, people have squinted to try to convince themselves that this is the real Browns. And I don't think that's a bad thing, I actually think it's pretty noble, it's not that people are stupid.

When you went to the Browns game, did you notice how 90% of jerseys fans wore were of players who flamed out in Cleveland and left in disappointing way?

As an Arizona Cardinal fan, the fact that I saw Derek Anderson jerseys blew my mind, he was so terrible for the Cardinals, people wondered if there was something wrong with his eyes. Some jerseys make some sense: I saw a lot of Tim Couch jerseys and that makes sense — he wasn't good but he was the first draft pick and I'm sure they got very excited. As I mention in the piece, their second all-time leading scorer is Braylon Edwards, who is not actually very good. He was good for that brief time in Cleveland, but that's the point. On one hand, yeah, I did see a lot of jerseys of players that weren't very good and flamed out, but on the other hand, there are mostly players who have actually done that. You still have to have a jersey. I was surprised I didn't see more Joe Thomas jerseys. He's a legit awesome, incredible player. But I guess it's not cool, no one wants to wear an offensive lineman's jersey.

So what's your takeaway from Cleveland? Good or bad, what are you going to remember most?

I learned about the Cleveland Browns and that piece seems to have gotten around and I think resonated a little bit with the Browns fans. The fact that the brother of the guy who had the funny obituary (the brother of Scott Entsminger, who wanted Browns players to be his pallbearers "so the Browns can let him down one last time"), he emailed me, he had seen the piece. It seems to have gotten around and spoke to people about the Browns. I knew nothing, very little about the Browns, until I got here. It was all through sitting and constantly talking to Browns fans and learning about that. One of the goals of this series is to really get into the head of a fan and see what they care about, what they've been through, what they are excited about, what they are looking forward to. That's the fun of this, that's what I love with my fellow fans; I get excited about stuff and want to know what gets other people excited. To learn all that stuff about Cleveland — I actually watched, stupidly, some of that Browns game on Sunday like a fan, like, "Come on guys!' I found myself saying, "Weeden can do it," and, "Just give the ball to Richardson."

Jimmy Haslam is a key figure throughout the series.

One of the things that's interesting is people are still excited about the new owner, despite the whole FBI investigation. What a stomach-kick that was, because people were so excited about it and then there's the two-year investigation. They still believe in a lot ways, and I kind of love that.

I guess fans know how compartmentalize opinions of someone when in comes to sports.

Why wouldn't you? I don't care if my team's owner is a good person or a bad person, I just want him to get me a win. I think this guy (Jimmy Haslam), assuming he doesn't go to jail, is in a better position, I think, than the previous owner.

Click on over to sportsonearth.com to follow along.