Confronting Your Tradition

When Memories are Tainted by the Actions of Others


There is a reason why being a loyal fan of the Cleveland Browns is worth 53.83 positive life points in the hit NBC series, “The Good Place.” No team, in the history of professional sports, has suffered more than The Mistake on the Lake. Such instances as The Fumble, The Drive and the team’s move to Baltimore under the regime of Art Modell have marred the image of this team for decades. Yet, people still flock to the stands to cheer on their favorite team, including yours truly. Recently, controversy struck when the team signed quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was accused of sexually harassing 26 massage therapists in the Houston area from 2019-2020. Now, fans find themselves stuck in the crosshairs of a moral dilemma. In March 2021, the quarterback faced his first of 24 civil cases. With these allegations gaining notoriety amongst the public and in addition to various contract disputes, Watson did not play for the entirety of the 2021 season. The cases against him caused many teams to pursue him hesitantly; however, the Browns were not discouraged.

They quickly signed him with a guaranteed 230 million dollar deal over the course of five years. On Oct. 13, 2022, two additional cases were made public, separate from the original 24. While their stories are closely related, the new plaintiffs are using separate attorneys through Universal Law Group. A schism occurred between many of the fans, one group so desperate for a win that they would do, or believe anything, another group that no longer considers themselves fans in protest and a third who attempts to still support the team (not financially), while disavowing Watson’s actions.

At the time of writing, Watson is suspended until week eleven as well as serving a five million dollar fine and settling 23 of the 26 cases against him. He claims to be innocent throughout the controversy and agreed to settle in order to exonerate his name and the image of the team. But the Watson saga highlights a much more pressing issue than just the Browns’ on field success. Rather, how do we come to terms with nostalgia and the negative aspects that are covered up when looking back? Being a fan of the Browns has been an integral part of who I am. My dad buys season tickets and I always enjoy going with him to watch the games. It helped us bond over a common interest in the Browns.

I’ve had great memories at those games including attending the only winning game in the 2016 season and even many of the games in the 0-16 era. With the signing of Watson, many fans, including myself, felt disaffected by the decision. Knowing that they are trash on the field is one thing, but knowing that they will throw away any semblance of moral integrity for a shot at winning stings more than any loss. To add insult to injury, a few fans have gravitated towards disgusting rhetoric and images of illegal t-shirts on social media. A majority of fans condemn these actions and the local media has reported extensively on it.

I was horrified when I saw these images come to light and realized just how intrinsic protecting powerful men is to American culture. What Watson is reported to have done is not novel to American society. Sexual assault and harassment have been, and still are, neglected. Until recently, almost all cases in the United States have been pushed to the side or never even mentioned. RAINN notes that out of 1,000 sexual assault cases, 310 of them are reported to the police and only 25 percent of the offenders will receive jail time. There must be a way to hold people, especially powerful men, accountable for their actions and create a culture that will not allow for such actions. This comes with hearing the stories of victims and not making accusatory remarks that victims are only in it for the money, which is not only disrespectful to them, but also an absurdly irrational, conjectural claim.

With no guarantee of winning the case and the expense of legal fees, fabricating this much evidence with most victims giving relatively similar accounts is much more than coincidental. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, between two and 10 percent of all cases are fraudulent. With 26 accusations against Watson, there is an incredibly low probability for such accusations to be forged. In light of the recent news of two more plaintiffs, people have been making disparaging comments, insinuating that they are just now accusing him because he is allowed in the Browns training facility. Sexual assault is traumatic and without the solidarity of our culture, it can be isolating.

Now that there is national media coverage of the situation, some victims may see this as an opportunity to share their story and hopefully achieve justice from their offender. Tradition should not be an excuse to belittle survivors’ accounts of sexual violence. When people are actively being harmed and villainized just for sharing their story crosses a moral line that must not be crossed. Lauren Baxley, one of the plaintiffs against settling, wrote in an article for “The Daily Beast” that “All non-consensual sexual acts are a violence, particularly when the predator far outweighs his victims in physical stature and influential power.” She explains that men, specifically those in power, must be held accountable for their actions so that further harm is not done to the victims.

Whether it be athletes, actors or politicians, people’s actions have consequences and they should have to answer for them. Browns Fans are not the victims here—not even close. The 26 women who have suffered at the hands of the Texans and Browns organizations, as well as Watson, do not come close to any of the negative press associated with the decision. Vitriolic comments are posted every day about the victims and seeing this man praised on a pedestal is demoralizing. We must do better to support and empower victims of sexual abuse, regardless of what attitudes may be present about the accused, so they have agency over their stories. This starts by listening to, empathizing with, and ensuring the people in these situations are not isolated. Through building solidarity with women who have endured this, only then can we engender a necessary attitude and cultural change that strives to achieve justice for victims.