Saturday, July 16, 2011

What Is and What Should Never Be

In my opinion, one of toughest things for an individual to do is admit that something sucks when they have a strong personal or emotional connection to it. This is far from profound, and yet people largely resist to even acknowledge it. In fact, this negligence is probably the greatest evidence of my point: people are so unwilling and uncomfortable with admitting the failures and tribulations of things they support and stand behind, they simply avoid the discussion altogether. Ok, that’s fine. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

For instance, I am a huge fan of the show Lost. During the show’s run, I was fully engrossed in the plot and the mystery, following the network TV show with an incredible (and at times, ridiculous) amount of intrigue on an episode-to-episode basis. Even today, I consider Lost one of my favorite shows of all time.  But if I’m being honest? The 6th and final season of the program pretty much sucked. I still love Lost as a complete show, still watched the last season with just as much interest and enjoyed wrapping up this incredible television journey, but standing alone, the overall season was almost entirely grade-A crap. For a while, it was tough for me to recognize and subsequently admit this, yet it was true the whole time. But this article is not about Lost. It is about me, and it is about my acceptance of something that (in spite of my affinity for it) totally sucks. Unfortunately, this one is a little tougher to accept. Opposed to the 6th Season of Lost (which lasted only 18 episodes) this one will more than likely haunt me to my grave.

The Cincinnati Bengals suck. There are certain caveats and explanations that are required in making this point, but it’s true regardless. I don’t necessarily mean they suck at football (although that tends to be the case more often than not) or that they suck as individual players or human beings (although that could be the case in certain situations). I am also not making this point as a Bengal-hater, some pompous, crab cake eating snark from Baltimore rooting for a murderer-turned-minister middle linebacker, or a troglodyte block-head from Pittsburgh rooting for a bearded woman-defiler or drunk-driving salsa dancer, or even a delusional fanatic from Cleveland, pretending to wallow in self-pity and yet secretly enjoying it. Nope. I come to you as a diehard and lifetime Bengals fan – and one that is actually a fairly consistent under-reactor in a city of over-zealous, overreacting sports fan with a slight inferiority complex. (Come on, I couldn’t (accurately) bash every other AFC North city and then just give mine a free pass.)

Anyways, back to my original point: in saying that the Bengals suck, it is not implying that they simply suck as a team or as specific players and coaches. It is much deeper than that. In stating (and simultaneously accepting) this assessment, it encompasses the Cincinnati Bengals as a complete entity, a singular professional sports franchise, a solitary business model. It’s like, instead of saying Metallica’s song structure sucks, that actually every aspect and characteristic of (or even a band reminiscent of or similar to) Metallica sucks. The scale of error is much broader than you might immediately associate. And it is because of this broad scale that, ostensibly, the Bengals would suck for a myriad of different reasons. Really, it’s just one.

That reason is Mike Brown. To describe Brown as one of the world’s most selfish, oblivious, and heartless owners of a professional franchise would be letting him off easy. Four-letter words and petty insults don’t deserve to be uttered in his direction. Demanding accountability for his actions is as useless and futile as an umbrella in the eye of a hurricane. And yet he presses on, General Manager and Owner of the newly crowned “Worst Franchise in American Professional Sports.” ESPN the Magazine recently unveiled their annual ranking of sports franchises, listing each team from the four major leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) from number 1 to 122. The Bengals clocked in – not at terrible, awful, or sub-par – but at the absolute bottom: #122. Now the merits or accuracy of this survey can certainly be questioned (as the Bengals attempted to do) but that’s just another example of failing to accept that which is true when we wish it wasn’t. You can certainly argue other franchises into that 122nd spot (Clippers, Mets, Redskins, Timberwolves, Maple Leafs) but you can’t convincingly argue the Bengals out of it. And our fearless leader is the reason why.

It may initially seem harsh to paint Mike Brown as the sole reason for the Bengals’ futility…then you look at the facts. The Bengals were not always this putrid. They made two Super Bowl runs in the ‘80s, had two separate NFL MVPs at quarterback (Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason), and had one of the greatest football minds in the history of the game steering the ship (Paul Brown). Then, in 1991, everything changed. Paul Brown passed away, giving control of the team to son, Mike. After coming just minutes short of a Super Bowl victory in ’88 and then successfully securing a playoff run in 1990, the Mike Brown-led organization was somehow able to rattle off 14 consecutive non-winning seasons and only two winning seasons in the past 20 years. The team’s pair of playoff appearances (’05 and ’09) each ended in first-round losses and were followed by below-average seasons. And in November of 2010, Brown became the fastest owner in NFL history to reach 200 career losses, doing so in only 314 games.

These accomplishments weren’t in the NBA or MLB where lax or non-existent salary caps put small-market teams at a disadvantage. This was in the NFL, where revenue sharing bestows parity and every team has a legitimate shot at success.  After taking over from his father, one of the top pioneers and leaders in the history of football, Mike Brown managed (no pun intended) to disgrace his family’s name and destroy the hope of an NFL franchise in less than two decades. He concurrently held a city hostage and crushed its spirit, and yet still managed to pad his wallet and keep himself in power. You know that saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”? Yeah, Mike Brown is the opposite.

It would take me far too many words and be far too detrimental to my health to run down each and every transgression of Mr. Brown, so I’ll just hit the highlights. I already mentioned how terrible the team has performed since he was put in charge, which he has done as one of only three owners in  the entire league to also serve as a General Manager. He has complete job security (his daughter is next in command, and she appears to have a lot more of her father in her than her grandfather), and is just stubborn and egocentric enough to keep it that way. He quickly fired adored head coach Sam Wyche in 1991, replacing him for the next decade with the “Murderer’s Row” of head coaches Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet, and Dick Labeau, all of which were inadequate at doing the job, on top of being given an insufficient roster of players because Brown was too cheap to shell out cash. Which leads to another problem: the way the NFL is structured, teams are always going to make money, regardless of how well they play; so for Brown, the less he spends, the more he then makes. It’s why the Bengals have the smallest scouting staff in the NFL, constantly have players and draft picks holding out for more money, and rarely shell out enough to land notable free agents, electing instead to pick players off the scrap heap with extensive criminal records or behavioral issues for a fraction of the normal price. Sure, sometimes this works (see: Cedric Benson**), but more often than not (see: a list so long it would break the internet) it doesn’t.

**Ed's Note: As if by some divine intervention, sent down to help validate the assertions of this article, Benson was arrested for assault roughly 24 hours after I posted this.

Back in the ‘90s, the Bengals shared Riverfront Stadium with the Cincinnati Reds. Admittedly, the place had become an ancient dump, and Brown felt the Bengals needed a new stadium. According to him, this new facility would increase revenue, attract better players and coaches, and ultimately lead to a more successful franchise…except he didn’t want to help pay for it, so he called for it to be publicly funded. When the local tax payers were hesitant about pouring millions upon millions of their hard earned dollars into this project, Brown cocked his gun and put his hand on the trigger, threatening to relocate the team if the ordinance didn’t pass. The city’s residents ultimately voted to keep the team. Ten years later, it’s resulted in North America’s worst franchise and the most expensive publicly funded stadium in the league, racking up an estimated $555 million in costs to local tax payers. And all this time, Mike Brown just keeps getting richer.

I could continue to throw out stats and figures that would only further prove my point, but it’s unnecessary. The plight of the Cincinnati Bengals over the past two decades is obvious, and putting the entirety of that blame on one man makes a lot more sense when you simply look at the facts. It’s unfair to claim he’s a bad person (or is it?), he’s certainly not a bad business man (he’s rich), and you can’t really say he’s stupid (he keeps getting richer). But he is a terrible owner and a dreadful GM. He is ignorant, negligent, selfish, conceited, short-sighted, and has no semblance of self-awareness. He is inadequate at his job and has absolutely no consideration for the fanbase he (allegedly) serves. He is a crook, a curmudgeon, a hack, and a cheap, cheap bastard. And in 20 years of complete and utter failure, squander, and hopelessness, Mike Brown is the franchise’s one and only constant.

The worst part, for me at least, is that despite what I have just laid out, I am and will always be a diehard fan of the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s one of the weirder qualities of sports. No one would continue listening to a clearly terrible band or supporting a divulged corrupt politician, but in sports, loyalties seem to extend beyond rational thought. It’s much more sensibility than common sense. In any respect, it sucks that my favorite team will more than likely remain on this same road of course for the foreseeable future. At least now I can finally admit it.

And yet, things were much easier before, when each new year, new season, new game offered the potential for things to turn around, to right the ship. I was always so certain that things could be reversed at any moment. That’s no longer the case. I’ll continue rooting for the Bengals, just as I always have, holding out hope for a few moments here and there where on-the-field triumph conquers the front office incompetence.  But my dreams of a consistently successful football franchise will remain hollow and void as long as Mike Brown and Co. remain in charge.

By no means am I a huge Bob Seger fan (I don’t think anyone is, other than cross-country truck drivers) but one of my favorite lyrics of all-time comes from his song, “Against the Wind.” He sings, “Wish I didn’t know now, what I didn’t know then.” It might be the most honest, introspective, and perceptive line ever uttered, and it pretty much sums up how I feel about the Cincinnati Bengals. Wishing they could just be good or proficient would be more gratifying, but that’s a little too far-fetched. And it’s my lack of ignorance that now makes this fact ever so obvious.

So I suppose instead, I’ll just keep running against the wind.

Thanks for reading


jsoltis said...

I'm a Pittsburgh Steeler Fan AND a Bob Dylan Fan - would that make me an intelligent block head?

J. Williams said...

Mr. Soltis, when the one great scorer comes to mark against your name, your appreciation for Dylan will outweigh the great fault of rooting for the Steelers. I can only hope that my situation will prove to have a similar fate.