If I can root for both Browns and Bengals, you can stray from your political party

December 3, 2021 12:20 am

An exterior view of FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images).

This is a plug for a therapeutic approach to countering the bitter polarization of this country’s two-party political system. Try becoming less rigid and zealous in favoring sports teams as a statement against the “party politics as a team sport” approach that’s dividing our country.

Bear with me here.

If I can manage to split my fan allegiance between two bitter rivals in the NFL’s AFC North – the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals – why can’t American voters detach themselves from groveling attachment to one political party (or one pathologically self-involved clown at the head of said party) when so much more is at stake?

Many Ohio football fans may not be following this train of reasoning. They’re still scratching their heads at the crazy idea that anyone could simultaneously root for both the Bengals and Browns.

This isn’t something for public consumption, so please don’t tell my family and friends who are devout Browns fans. They wouldn’t necessarily shun me, get an injunction to keep me out of FirstEnergy Stadium, or toss me to the wild dogs. But who knows?

So how does one convert from stolid, never-wavering Browns fan (a survivor of Red Right 88, the Drive, the Fumble) to a philistine who will root for two rival teams on the same day? (Granted, this is awkward when they play each other.)

Joe Burrow, star quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, deserves much of the blame/credit.

Former LSU quarterback and Athens native Joe Burrow is seen in a 2018 game. Wikimedia Commons photo courtesy Tammy Anthony Baker.

The Heisman Trophy winner turned NFL phenom hails from the southeast Ohio county where I edited a twice-weekly newspaper for 34 years. He’s the most famous sports figure whom I’ve ever shared a hometown with (second place goes to College Football and NFL Hall of Famer Larry Csonka, who attended my high school). Burrow is a local hero not only for his insane sports success in Athens, Baton Rouge and Cincinnati, but for drawing attention to poverty in the region, triggering a food pantry drive that raised $650,000.

My dissolute past shares some fault as well.

For a two-year period in junior-high school in Northeast Ohio, I decided “just to be different” by rooting for the Bengals (the Greg Cook, Paul Robinson, Speedy Thomas, Bob Trumpy era) instead of the Browns. This shocking heresy was unheard of at the time, long before it became unremarkable to see people in Akron or Cleveland area malls wearing Pittsburgh Steeler jerseys. Unremarkable maybe but intolerable and offensive definitely.

Since the start of this recent, short stint as a dual Cincinnati-Cleveland fan, I have pulled for each of those teams when their winning wouldn’t hurt the other. And when they play each other, one of my teams is always the winner.

This superhuman flexibility when it comes to historically locked-in-place pro football allegiances isn’t easy, even though in the overall scheme of things football isn’t really very important. That being the case, why should political choices that really do matter to society be any more difficult to be flexible about?

In popular spectator sports, your choice to fiercely support a particular team doesn’t hurt anybody unless perhaps you’re a Liverpool soccer hooligan. There’s no core principles, ethics or morality at stake.

You don’t have to worry about the Browns or the Bengals telling you lies (not important ones anyway); painting a false narrative about election fraud; rigging redistricting to disenfranchise millions of voters; avoiding disciplining members guilty of unprecedented breaches of civility and protocol; trying to hijack a presidential election; sugarcoating what caused an historical insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; or working to sabotage this country’s crusade to finally tame a global pandemic that’s killed nearly 780,000 Americans.

Treating party politics as a team sport, as one of our major parties has been doing in recent years (winning is everything and the only thing) relegates factors such as truth, ethics, morality and democratic principles to the back bench. Party figures who still respect those ideals are sent packing.

If I can manage to shake loose a longstanding, deeply held sports allegiance, with not one important principle at stake, it shouldn’t be that difficult to do the same thing in the political realm where choices have grave consequences for people. For one party, unfortunately, this seems like an impossible dream.

If there’s anything crazier than fanatically supporting a certain sports team, it’s sycophantically following a political party no matter what they do or say. That’s an abdication of a person’s responsibility as a citizen of this constitutional republic. It no less than threatens the survival of our democracy.

The problem with the other party is an inability to unify behind agreed-upon principles, though it’s difficult to produce a sports analogy for that one.

Meanwhile, for those who skipped the political argument and remain shocked at the notion of someone rooting for two AFC North teams at the same time, I’ve got a less than adventurous wager for you: Ten bucks the Bengals finish ahead of the Browns.



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Terry Smith
Terry Smith

Terry Smith in May 2020 left The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio, after editing that award-winning publication for 34 years. His columns and editorials have placed first in the Ohio News Media Association’s annual weekly newspaper awards in recent years. Before returning to Athens and his alma mater, Ohio University, in 1986, Smith reported for newspapers in Ohio, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado and West Virginia. He is currently freelance editing and writing from his home in Athens.