The Cleveland Pro Sports Team Alliance for Social Justice Shows Its Limits and Contradictions

click to enlarge The Cleveland Pro Sports Team Alliance for Social Justice Shows Its Limits and Contradictions
Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse

The irony, it seemed, was lost on most everyone.

On Sept. 22, 2020, the Cavs, Browns and Indians celebrated National Voter Registration Day in advance of the November elections with a nonpartisan voter registration drive in the atrium of the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Held in partnership with the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and local democracy-building nonprofit Cleveland VOTES, the drive was a natural outgrowth of the newly created Cleveland professional sports team alliance for equality and social justice.

That alliance, formed in August 2020 in response to and during a summer of social justice protests and advocacy that saw players lead game and practice strikes across the leagues, was a commitment to bring the power and voices of the organizations as a whole into the conversation.

By its own description, the alliance would "focus on improving the relationship between law enforcement and its citizens, encouraging nonpartisan voting activities and increasing the opportunities for quality education for everyone" in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.

"The social and economic disparity in our community reveals some ugly truths," Cavs GM Koby Altman said at the time. "We never take for granted our place in the fabric of Cleveland, and hopefully our coming together inspires others to join us.”

“We understand the platform our organization has to make a positive impact on these important issues,” added Browns GM Andrew Berry.

And for the Indians, President Chris Antonetti said, “We recognize the profound impact that professional sports have on the greater Cleveland community, and the enormous responsibility that comes with such a platform."

That the Cavs, Indians and Browns figure prominently in the fabric of Cleveland is obvious and indisputable, and that they would join others in the social justice movement is welcomed given that fact, even if many of their sister organizations entered the conversation only after players used their leverage and star power to stop games. (To the Browns' credit, the team formed a social justice committee in 2019.)

Using their prominence and outsized voice, then, to register voters before the November elections was a natural decision to fulfill the alliance's mission, and it came with glitz and star power.

Custom t-shirts proclaiming "Cleveland Turns Up to Vote" were made in partnership with ILTHY, a PSA featuring Baker Mayfield, Kevin Love, Terry Francona and others was aired to spread the message, the Cavs posted voter registration information and worked with the county to open Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse as a voting location, and mascots were in attendance for the four-hour registration drive in September.

"The Cavaliers organization has a long-standing record of supporting voter registration initiatives and promotions," the team proudly said in a release.

The effort, which the alliance tells Scene registered more than 1,000 voters, was laudable.

That the Cavs participated with a straight face was laughable.

They were, most seemed to not notice or care, advocating for participatory democracy in the House That Didn't Quite Kill Local Democracy But Did Give It a Gaping Head Wound.

The atrium of the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse was built as part of the Q Transformation deal, which Cleveland should never forget was a mortgage on the city’s future to sate its private masters, forged through a series of stunning, craven anti-democratic moves by all involved, including but not limited to: city council's initial refusal to accept and certify signatures for a ballot referendum on the city's $88 million portion of the bill; Dan Gilbert's decision to petulantly and unilaterally pull out of the deal once the signatures were ordered to be certified by the Ohio Supreme Court, thus putting the issue on the ballot; the fear-mongering quotes from Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and others calling the death of the deal a death-knell for the arena and a real reason the Cavs could leave town; and the backroom dealings and pressure that forced the Greater Cleveland Congregations to pull the ballot initiative despite widespread public support garnered by one of the few successful grassroots campaigns in recent memory.

So, yeah: A voter registration drive in that building given that history is more than a little ironic.

And the irony isn't beside the point. The irony is the point.

If the pro sports team alliance looks around the local democratic landscape they'll find a long-disenfranchised and/or uninterested electorate.

Only 53% of registered Cleveland voters cast a ballot in the November 2020 election, fewer than in any presidential election since 2000. The numbers turn from bad to ghastly in local elections. Only 13% of Clevelanders cast a ballot in the last mayoral election. (Frank Jackson has presided over an abysmal era of voter turnout over his four terms, with 20,000 fewer voters in each election.) Turnout is even lower for city council races in certain wards, where a few dozen votes can swing a race.

And no one, least of all Cleveland's pro sports teams, should be surprised.

As Scene's Sam Allard wrote in the aftermath of the 2020 election:

"For Cleveland's leaders, the electorate is a thing to be marshaled and deployed every four years, at which time they are expected to fill in the bubble for the Democratic candidate. This is what voters mean when they say that they are 'taken for granted.'

"For voters, it is not only a sense of apathy and despair over presidential politics that keeps them at home. It's no doubt true that impoverished Clevelanders are so accustomed to their misery that they're unlikely to be convinced that a vote for one or another candidate will improve the material conditions of their lives. It has not in the past. But it's also true that they've tried to improve their lives, and every time they've done so at the local level, they've been shut out.

"Though they'd deny it up and down, Cleveland City Council has made shutting out voters its preeminent mission. They communicate nothing with as much regularity and strength. Any councilperson bemoaning low voter turnout should recall that they forbid residents from offering public comment at council meetings; that they appoint their own successors, robbing residents of the ability to elect their own representatives; and that they work tirelessly to ensure that citizen petitions are invalidated or sabotaged."

There's no arguing with getting out the vote, and to the alliance's credit, they told Scene, "We will continue our efforts to register fans to vote for the upcoming elections," which will determine the city's next mayor, and that Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse will hold multiple registration dates this fall.

But if they're looking for gratitude for handing Cleveland a Band-aid for the head wound they helped cause, they should look elsewhere.

And if you're looking for the alliance's opinion on HB 294, a proposed Ohio bill that would restrict early and absentee voting, you won't find one. You can, however, read an op-ed from Browns' offensive tackle and Players Coalition member Chris Hubbard titled, "Fighting systemic racism now involves protecting our right to vote in Ohio."


"We've made a lot of progress in less than a year, but it's important to recognize we're just in the initial phase and start of this long-term journey," the alliance told Scene. "Staff members from all three teams have been meeting on a weekly basis as a full group since the beginning. Sub-groups focused on individual pillars of the CL3 Alliance have also been meeting on a regular basis as well."

On the education pillar work, the alliance had this to share.

"The Education Taskforce has met with leaders in the education space, including CMSD, East Cleveland City Schools, Breakthrough Schools, Cleveland Foundation, Say Yes to Education – Cleveland and College Now Greater Cleveland," the alliance said. "These discussions were focused on truly understanding the digital divide and equity in education landscapes in Cleveland and East Cleveland, our initial geographic areas of focus. The Alliance is now considering how the collective group will activate and support those points of focus in Cleveland and East Cleveland."

Cleveland's digital divide is not new, and it is bad.

According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Cleveland is the fourth worst-connected city in the country, and the lack of access, mapped geographically, is concentrated on the east side and basically mirrors historic redlining maps. Nearly 30% of homes in Cleveland are completely unconnected. In Cuyahoga County, 51% of households making $20,000 or less don't have internet access.

And the digital divide's acute impact on low-income families was exacerbated during the pandemic as CMSD schools went fully remote for nearly a year in a city where CMSD families had little access to get their kids connected online: Nearly 40% of CMSD households lack internet and nine schools within the district are located in neighborhoods where that number climbs to more than 50%.

To temporarily bridge the divide during the pandemic, CMSD spent $14 million on new equipment — partially funded by a $100,000 KeyBank grant and a $151,466 state grant — that included 13,500 WiFi hotspots (with data for one year at a total of $3 million) and 27,000 tablets and computers (that must be returned after graduation).

Citywide, the efforts are similarly piecemeal.

DigitalC, a nonprofit that brings affordable internet ($18/month) to low-income areas in Cleveland, currently services 1,000 homes in Fairfax, Hough, Central, Glenville, Clark-Fulton and Buckeye-Woodhill. Cobbling together grants and donations, it hopes to increase that number to 3,000 and then 6,000 by the end of the year. It's doing so with a mix of technologies, including tapping into the citizens broadband radio spectrum.

But, as DigitalC's CEO Dorothy Baunach told, “There’s no way to do this without fiber in the ground. But to dig up this city and do what we’re planning to do would cost, I don’t know, hundreds of millions of dollars to put fiber in the ground to every house.”

Perhaps in the coming year the alliance chips in with a donation that would provide WiFi hotspots or equipment for families or cuts a $1 million check to DigitalC to further its work. (Cleveland Indians Charities last year raised $50,000 to help the Breakthrough charter schools in Cleveland purchase hotspots and Chromebooks for students learning at home.) Every little bit counts in closing the gap, and the more impetus and speed behind solutions, the better. But there's little mystery here. It's about money.

“It’s how fast can we get our city connected,” Baunach said. “Because every day that a family isn’t connected is a day that their health suffers, their education suffers and their access to economic opportunity suffers.”

But relying wholly on private investment won't solve the problem, and relying wholly on private investment is how we got here in the first place.

Samantha Schartman is the chief executive of Connected Insights, a company that provides data research and consulting for nonprofits. She's also one of the authors of "Connecting Cuyahoga," a report which detailed Northeast Ohio's sharp digital divide. She told Eye on Ohio last year that "the situation will not improve until city and county governments decide to prioritize digital equity by giving residents a way to get efficient broadband."

And who’s getting left behind? Poor people. (Not for nothing, but while the Alliance says team averages are around $16 for non-union part-time employees, the starting wage for some positions is $11 for the Cavs, $9.60 for the Indians and $9.50 for the Browns.)

"Digital inclusion leadership in the country is more the exception than the rule," she said. "Ohio does not lead in this way, and that is why we are one of the worst connected cities and one of the worst connected counties in the country."
And the failure of local leaders is to bring reliable internet is directly tied to a lack of economic development in neighborhoods.

"That means, when we are looking around at our local economy and we're not seeing the jobs, we're not seeing industry coming here. This is just one of the reasons we are not competitive."

Cleveland City Council President and Cleveland mayoral candidate Kevin Kelley knows all this.

Closing the digital divide has been a pet cause of his for years and has become a key component of his mayoral platform.

In an op-ed last May, Kelley wrote, "We cannot just continue to talk about the problem... There are solutions available and now is the time to identify the right solutions for Cleveland, both short-term and long-term. Now is the time."

Kelley has first-hand knowledge of how well a public solution can work: In 2011, using some federal money along with some city revenue and ward-specific money, he brought his constituents free internet with Old Brooklyn Connects. Covering 4.5 square miles, the network provides basic WiFi service levels (not suitable for gaming or for a household’s multiple devices all streaming at the same time) to thousands of homes and businesses.

In a speech on the steps of City Hall officially announcing his candidacy for mayor, Kelley said his number-one policy priority, which he cited in both prepared remarks and in a question about how he'd spend federal coronavirus aid, was ending the digital divide.

The problem, as always, is money.

If the estimate for digging and laying fiber to fully connect every Cleveland household is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the estimate to do a fraction of that using workarounds and other tech to put a serious dent in the divide is still high — $40 million, according to DigitalC.

The massive federal coronavirus aid relief could be used to fund a solution, but it also represents a once-in-a-lifetime windfall subject to heated debates on its deployment to any number of suitable and deserving causes and politicians tasked with making wise decisions.

And recent Cleveland history has proved, if nothing else, that it's a fool's errand to trust leaders to invest in the city and its citizens and not chase magic bullets or pour resources into subsidizing the corporate community.

Kevin Kelley, again, knows this, as chief co-conspirator in the Q Deal.

According to the Georgia Law Review: “Before 1948, there were only twenty-eight professional sports stadiums and only four were built with a modest amount of government funds. Over the next half of the 20th century, American sports teams spent over $20 billion on stadiums for the four major American sports leagues of which, conservatively, taxpayers paid $14.727 billion.”

Here’s the system we’ve built: Owners hold infinitely appreciating assets in the franchises themselves while running them, without the nagging problems of property tax or paying for repairs, in constantly depreciating assets owned by the public. To sweeten the deal, the stadiums and arenas become obsolete in short order. At which time the owners come back and ask the city/county to build a new one or dramatically renovate the old one.

It’s insanity, and bad policy, as noted by an ever-growing body of research that says the economic impact claimed by cherry-picked consultants and tourism bureaus are not just exaggerated but wrong. Taxpayers have simply not gotten anywhere close to a return on their investment and had their basic services needs ignored in favor of a farcical trickle-down stadium theory of local economics where the trickle never even gets to their door.

But professional sports owners hold almost complete sway over local politicians, so cities come back to the table again and again and again to open the public coffers, held hostage by owners who can always head-nod at a better offer down the street and the rabid fanbase that’d beat down the door of the man who let them leave.

Cleveland's been no different. And now the sin tax well is dry (in fact, the county has had to borrow tens of millions of dollars as an advance on future sin tax revenue to pay for upgrades required by Gateway leases), the city will be paying off its $88 million contribution (before interest) to the Q Transformation until 2034, (while it won't even finish paying off its debt from the original construction of the then-Gund Arena until 2023), Destination Cleveland forked over $44 million for the deal, Cuyahoga County is out $16 million, the Haslams are at Frank Jackson's desk with a dazzling lakefront plan that could cost $229 million with Lord knows how much covered by Cleveland taxpayers, and with the Indians’ lease at Progressive Field up in 2023, the Gateway Development Corporation is already talking about novel ways to drum up public funds to pay for the upgrades the team will assuredly demand in exchange for signing on the dotted line and County Executive Armond Budish has said the Q Deal is the kind of deal he’d like to make with the team.

If the alliance is looking for huge sums of money that could be spent on solving a public problem, it could check their offices.

DigitalC says $40 million would begin to put a dent in the digital divide.
Imagine a better-negotiated Q Deal, one that saw Cleveland's contribution at a mere $48 million instead of $88 million.

Imagine refusing to pay a cent for the arena renovations and instead using the entirety of the admissions tax collected to expand WiFi access to thousands of homes a year.

Imagine, as states like Iowa and New Hampshire allow, Cleveland using government bonds not for the Q but for a publicly owned broadband network to fully close the digital divide, paid off by a decade of admission taxes?

Imagine Dan Gilbert, the 23rd-richest human being on the entire planet, the Haslams, one of only eight billionaire families in the state of Ohio, and the Dolans putting their hands back in their pockets, or at least local leaders who would tell them to instead of bending over backward to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare while residents live in desperate, sustained poverty without access to basic services.

It's certainly hard to, especially when 'Cleveland's Living Room," as the Cavs so affectionately called the renovated arena, has 20 gigabit LAN connections and a 77,000 square-foot-facade that can be lit in 1,500 different color combinations while a kid sitting in an actual living room in Hough can't even get on the internet.


The alliance’s third pillar, Law Enforcement, presents an area in which the three professional sports teams have the fewest, if any, conflicts, but also an area in which it hasn’t set its sights very high.

Per the alliance: "The 3-Team law enforcement working group came together to focus on building and strengthening relationships between law enforcement and the community. As a first step, the working group set out on a listening tour in order to better understand the ongoing efforts, as well as concerns or tensions in the community. After speaking with a variety of law enforcement organizations and leaders as well as community organizations, the overwhelming demand signal was to leverage the 3-Team platform to create opportunities for dialogue."

Dialogue is good, and though it's not a new idea, leveraging the team's star power and reach to bring sides together is certainly something it can do that ranks somewhere north of stamping JUSTICE on the sideline.

It does, however, seem not just the path of least controversy and resistance but a path at least partially divergent from the social justice movement that precipitated the alliance’s formation. Namely, a movement concerned with racism and police killing Black men and women.

It would be ideal, and more aligned with the cause, for the alliance to take a harder stand and publicly come out in favor of solutions that address those issues – for example, the ballot initiative from Citizens for a Safer Cleveland that would amend the city of Cleveland's charter to create stronger civilian oversight of the police department, or proposed police reforms from Gov. Mike DeWine that have stalled as Americans mourned the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.

As it stands, the alliance has instead focused on how residents can better understand law enforcement and, ostensibly, the other way around as well.

Along with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the Cleveland Police Foundation's Pipeline Program, the Alliance hosted its first "Conversations for Change" event in February, bringing 50 students together with Cleveland police chief Calvin Williams and a group of officers.

"The intent of the forum was to create small group dialogue between law enforcement officers and students," the alliance told Scene. "Using a music video by Lil Baby (The Bigger Picture) as the catalyst for discussion, the groups quickly engaged in real issues and concerns. The session wrapped up with students sharing what they discussed in their small group. Finally, the group moderator, Kevin Clayton, gave everyone an “I Will” challenge."

The alliance held a virtual follow up in March with the students to hear what they'd been thinking about since the first session and "to follow up on their I Will challenges."

A second engagement was held at the Power of Sports Summit at Progressive Field in April.

If the police officers also completed I Will challenges, no one bothered to follow up.


Professional sports teams employ thousands of people, and like in any large organization, those employees represent every shade of the political spectrum.

You’re as likely to find someone with a Trump 2024 sign in their front yard as you are to find someone with a Black Lives Matter sign in their living room window. For every liberal darling like Steve Kerr, there’s a MAGA-humping Bill Belichick. For every Andrew Hawkins, who wore a ‘Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford’ t-shirt during pre-game introductions in 2014, there’s a Dee Haslam, who donated cash to the Cleveland police union so the amateur cop football team, which at that time included Timothy Loehmann, the former Cleveland cop who shot and killed Rice, could fly to California for a game.

Even in a PSA on the safety of Covid-19 vaccines produced by the Cleveland pro sports team alliance, there’s only the illusion of unity – Indians’ ace relief pitcher James Karinchak, for example, has lately used his modest Instagram bully pulpit to share disgusting thoughts equating public health campaigns promoting vaccinations to tactics used by Nazi Germany.

By simply focusing its efforts on issues of equality, the Alliance finds itself on the left of many of the teams’ employees, and building consensus for messaging naturally has to accommodate for that. The Alliance is also hamstrung by the fact that it’s left of the fans who love the teams, generally, and certainly left of the majority of ticket-holding fans. Coming out against a repressive GOP-led voting bill or in favor of wholesale police oversight reform shouldn't be but is is likely an untenable ask in the face of possible backlash.

Those limitations and tight public relations navigations, though, pale in comparison to the biggest obstacle.

While executives from the upper echelons of all three teams have participated in some form in the alliance, including “ownership involvement at various points,” the alliance has no seat at any meaningful table. The owners are the ones dumping massive campaign donations into the coffers of their preferred candidates and using their outsized power and presence in the corridors of power at City Hall, Cuyahoga County and the Statehouse to shape decisions, like how to spend public money.

Owners are also, by and large, a right-leaning lot, beholden to Republicans for acquiescent regulation and tax policy, amoral in most situations where their bottom line is concerned.

(In what might feel like an extreme example, in an ESPN report last year on pro sports owners turning to dark money donations to escape public disclosure of their Trump support, one owner mused, "I'm so worried about Biden's regulations, so I'm funding as much as I can privately and confidentially to get Trump reelected. I know he's crazy, and I hope Democrats take the House and the Senate, but then Trump can block stuff and protect us on the taxes and regulation.")

The point was money talks, both for the owners and for the elected officials who’ll grant them access and legislative favors.

And the importance of that financial relationship is even more pronounced locally, where owners are not one in a long list of uber-rich supporters begging for attention but one of a small handful of powerful people that mayors and county executives feel they can’t afford to ignore. And they’ve used that access, and that leverage, to pilfer every last public cent they can.

Cleveland’s elected leaders have been all too happy to play along, mortgaging the future and ignoring the essential services they pay lip service to during campaigns as the actual remedies to improving the daily lives of everyday Clevelanders. It’s how they get their campaigns funded, after all.

Gilbert and a lengthy list of Cavs, Jack Entertainment, Bedrock Detroit and Rocket Companies executives poured money into Council President Kevin Kelley’s campaign coffers for his work in jamming the Q Deal down Cleveland’s throats. In advance of the Browns’ proposed lakefront project making its way through the public process, the Haslams each contributed max individual donations to Kelley’s mayoral campaign in December and were joined with smaller donations from the team’s Executive Vice President and COO David Jenkins and Ted Tywang, the team’s general counsel and Vice President of the Haslam Sports Group.

All three teams like to talk about being good corporate citizens – a promise to be just that appears on the Indians’ diversity initiatives webpage – and local leaders use the same language – Cleveland’s Chief of Regional Development, Ed Rybka, recently praised the Browns’ lakefront proposal, one whose funding is a complete mystery to everyone but the Haslams and Frank Jackson, as a chief example of them being just that.

The problem is that the asking them to be good corporate citizens has been a raw deal for most Clevelanders. They’re corporations first, whose paramount concern is profit, and whose voice and power as corporate citizens dwarf and silence those of regular citizens.

Being a good corporate citizen also almost exclusively means charity. It means cutting a check, returfing a school’s football field, sponsoring a scholarship, or enlisting the well-heeled fans of the teams to do so on their behalf. It’s a pittance compared to the resources they’ve sucked from communities, but the leaders who sold you out get to claim community benefits and the teams get to parade around town as generous philanthropic benefactors.

It’s also what the CL3 Alliance is doing so far (paying for the fireworks at the inaugural Juneteenth Freedom Fest, for example) when what the moment calls for, and what their pillars of social justice emphasis demand, is wholesale policy change as well as internal and external reflection on what role the teams have played in undermining those causes. (It’s also worth remembering that, as United Way of Greater Cleveland CEO August Napoli correctly pointed out last year, advocating for policy solutions is far more effective for putting a dent in issues like poverty than writing a check.)

If “the social and economic disparity in our community reveals some ugly truths,” as Koby Altman said in the launch of the CL3 Alliance, some of those ugly truths can be found on the doorsteps of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, FirstEnergy Stadium and Progressive Field.
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Vince Grzegorek

Vince Grzegorek has been with Scene since 2007 and editor-in-chief since 2012. He previously worked at Discount Drug Mart and Texas Roadhouse.
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