Sport, Community, and Blue-Collar Egalitarianism: From “Save Our Browns” to “Together” in Cleveland’s Rust Belt Dreams

Last week, Nike introduced a new commercial. Featuring National Basketball Association superstar LeBron James, “Together” shows the Cleveland community rallying around its local hero. In grand and gallant fashion, James returned to the city on the shores of Lake Erie to reclaim his rightful place on the throne of his Rust Belt kingdom. The black and white, artistic production begins with James gathering his faithful patrons—the other basketball players that make up the Cleveland Cavaliers—around him in a pre-game huddle. “It’s our city, we gotta do it for them. We gotta do it for Cleveland, they’re waiting on us,” the two-time NBA MVP demands of his comrades. Soon, the crowd, and seemingly all of Cleveland, surround the self-proclaimed “kid from Akron” (a city ~40 miles south of Cleveland).

James, then, speaks to the whole community:

Every single night, every single practice, every single game, we gotta give it everything we got. Because they’re gonna ride with us. Everything that we do on this floor is because of this city. We owe them. We’re gonna grind for this city. They gonna support us. But we gotta give it back to them. We’re gonna get it done. The toughness that we have on the court is going to come from this city. Everybody. The whole city of Cleveland. That’s what it is all about. It’s time to bring them something special.

This heart-felt soliloquy ends and James calls everyone together in the huddle. “Hard work on three, together on six,” he commands.

1, 2, 3 “Hard work!” 4, 5, 6 “Together!” Panning over the city, the video offers shots of Clevelanders, of all races and ethnicities, men and women, boys and girls, children and adults, people in suits, and others dressed for physical labor, with arms linked together reciting the James creed.

1, 2, 3 “Hard work!” 4, 5, 6 “Together!”

Finally, James gets the last call: “Cleveland on three!” 1, 2, 3 “Cleveland!”
——
This commercial touches on the fabric of Cleveland. It draws on the historic blue-collar sensibilities of the city, something that Clevelanders believe makes them exceptional. Clevelanders have mettle. They work harder than others. They have the discipline to survive hard conditions. As James said in his letter that announced his return to Cleveland: “Nothing is given. Everything is earned.”

LeBron James poster across the street from Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo courtesy of Jonah Rosenbloom.

LeBron James poster across the street from Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo courtesy of Jonah Rosenblum.

These narratives that thrive in Cleveland touch on the historic and current connections that exist between sport and community in major metropolitan areas. These connections, indeed, have been a ripe area for sport historians and other scholars of American sport. Many draw from Bendict Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities.” Sport scholars have used this concept to describe how, for example, two people living across town from one another can feel connected through cheering on the same team on a certain night, or over the course of many years. Most recently, an anthology edited by Daniel A. Nathan, Rooting for the Home Team, suggests (in the words of Nathan) that sports fandom “symbolizes a community’s preferred understanding of itself . . . It’s an expression of public pride and pleasure, a source of group and personal identity. It’s about sharing something, about belonging” (p. 2).

Indeed, Cleveland fans find solace in rooting for their professional sports teams. Their calls of “together,” and their blue-collar ethos manifests through how they “root for the home team.” But why did the narratives emerge? That answer demands a thorough study, but I offer a simple explanation: Clevelanders are responding to the ongoing denigration of their city. Their home has been mocked as a “miserable city” or, more specifically, the “worst city in which to be a sports fan.” Moreover, Cleveland has been lampooned in popular culture; much of this humiliation stems from its waning economy in the second half of the twentieth century combined with its sports teams that continually come up short.

A once thriving industrial center with the fifth-largest population of any city in the United States, Cleveland fell to forty-fifth in population by 2010. The city lost hundreds of thousands of jobs following World War II. And ridicule from its oft-igniting river that winds through the downtown area provided fodder for late-night talk show hosts, such as Johnny Carson, who routinely poked fun at the city, popularizing the slogan of Cleveland as the “mistake on the lake.”

Additionally, Cleveland’s sports teams suffered. Fifty years have passed since one of the “big four” Cleveland teams hoisted a championship trophy. Yet, they have come heartbreakingly close. In 1954, the baseball team won a then-record 111 games, before being swept by the New York Giants (the series that Willie Mays made his famous catch in deep center field). The Browns also found success in the 1960s, winning its last NFL Championship in 1964. But, if this had happened three years later, the Browns would be remembered as a Super Bowl team. Instead, the club remains one of the last teams to have never played in America’s favorite championship game. In the 1980s, the Browns came close to reaching the game, but John Elway’s drive and Earnest Byner’s fumble kept them from doing so. Likewise, Michael Jordan’s famous shot stuck a dagger in the hopes of the 1989 basketball team. And in 1997, the baseball team was but one inning away from winning its first World Series since 1948.

One event that perhaps best represents the plight of Cleveland fandom occurred on this date nineteen years ago. On November 6, 1995, Art Modell—then owner of the Cleveland Browns—shocked both Cleveland and football audiences across the United States when he announced that he had struck a deal with Baltimore and would be moving his club to Maryland following the season where they eventually became the Ravens.

Sports Illustrated Cover, December 4, 1995

Sports Illustrated Cover, December 4, 1995

Immediately following this announcement, Cleveland, like no other city before or since, organized a campaign to save its team. Coined the “Save Our Browns” campaign, Clevelanders began a protest movement involving myriad forms. They organized numerous large protests outside of the stadium at remaining games at Cleveland’s crumbling Municipal Stadium. They took a caravan of buses and other vehicles to protest outside of a Pittsburgh Steelers game when the Browns met the Steel City gridders on Monday Night Football. Politicians, such as Mayor Michael R. White, used the “Save Our Browns” campaign as a platform, gaining him substantial public support. The fans canvassed for signatures, acquiring thousands, before a group traveled to present them to the NFL administrators and other league owners at NFL meetings held in Atlanta. Finally, and perhaps most importantly (at least for researchers), Browns fans wrote thousands of letters to the NFL to protest Modell’s filching of their beloved gridiron club.

A little over 400 of these letters reside at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and as part of my master’s thesis research, which looked at the relocation of the Cleveland Browns, I read every one of these letters. In general, the correspondences suggest that Clevelanders aligned with some sort of “blue-collar” ethos that trumpets hard work, perseverance, integrity, grit, determination—all things Nike’s new commercial also propagates. The letters connected to blue-collar sensibilities. They associated traditional gender norms with football fandom. Importantly, and linking the themes from this 1990s movement to the Nike “Together” ad, many of the letters displayed attributes of whiteness—yet their letters were cloaked in egalitarian tones.

Indeed, many of the letters come from areas with a very high white population (86% of the letters come from areas outside of Cleveland’s city limites–places with a very high white population), something that is often forgotten in descriptions of the “Save Our Browns” campaign. Yet, the letters all suggested how the Browns brought the people of Cleveland (which currently has a black majority) together, often trumpeting many of the attributes that Nathan described about the relation between sport and community. They believed that saving professional sports—entertainment primarily for affluent suburbanites because of high ticket prices—remained the best way to bring the city together, or to help it rebound from its dismal past.

Race relations in Cleveland throughout the latter half of the twentieth century suggest why this may have transpired.

Like many other northern cities, Cleveland experienced massive white flight to the new suburbs as many African Americans migrated from the South to the industrial North. The city’s Hough district best represents Cleveland’s shifting demographics. In 1950, the area had a reported 95% white population. In 1960, 74% of the area reported “black” as an identifier. Racism and violence ensued with these shifting demographics. In 1966, four days of rioting ended with four black residents dead, while much property lay in ruin.

While many white residents moved to the suburbs, they remained connected with the city through its sports teams. This is not unique—many professional sports teams reside in cities that have high minority populations but a strong white fan base—but Cleveland, perhaps unlike other cities, has historically prided itself, at least in sports, on racial equality. The Browns helped spur the desegregation of professional football when they signed Bill Willis and Marion Motley in 1946. And the baseball team became the first American League team to sign a black baseball player in Larry Doby (the hypocritical nature of this pride combined with the current name and logo of the team is not lost on this author).

As the story goes, then, for Clevelanders, whether it be the fighting to save the football team in the 1990s, or rallying around the returning “King” in 2014, sports offer a way to link arms, a way to feel connected to one another no matter class difference, no matter race or ethnicity difference.

Although Nathan proclaimed the “connectedness” that people feel from sports, he also realizes the paradoxes. “The history of American sports is also one of exclusion, of segregation, that has forced some people—African Americans and women, most obviously, but many others—to play part,” he adds (p. 3). Indeed, American sports has historically been segregated across racial and ethnic lines. This plays a major role, too, in the connections between sport and community. It can take the form of people from specific racial or ethnic groups finding a shared experience. Or, it can, as is the case in Nike’s “Together” ad, allow fans to find solace in the community’s supposed racial harmony, all through simply “rooting for the home team.”

While Benedict Anderson might have referred to “rooting for the home team” as something of an “imagined community,” I contend that also “imagined” is the egalitarian nature of the city, what I might refer to as a perceived “blue-collar egalitarianism.”

Certainly, as seen through the narratives of Cleveland sports, from the “Save Our Browns” campaign to the recent return of James and Nike’s “Together” ad, Clevelanders have some sort of common vision when it comes to the linkages they see between their sports teams and the plights of their city. In the 1990s, Clevelanders felt they were campaigning for the whole city (and maybe they were, but certainly the most vocal supporters of the “Save Our Browns” campaign were white suburbanites). In 2014, Clevelanders view the “Together” ad as a symbol of the unity of Cleveland, despite the racial segregation that continues to divide the city.

Therefore, what does the notion of a perceived blue-collar egalitarianism suggest about the purpose of sport in a metropolitan area? Why was (in my estimation) the “Save Our Browns” campaign primarily run by people who come from places with a very high white population? Why, in 2014, does “Together” suggest the racial harmony of a city that in large part still remains segregated? Overall, what do these racial divisions, but egalitarian visions, suggest about the role of sport in Rust Belt America?

As James and Nike suggest, for this American Rust Belt city to prosper, all it takes is: “Hard work!” and for the people of Cleveland to work: “Together!”

Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. student at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. Currently, he is the Student Member-at-Large on the Executive Board of the North American Society for Sport History. He can be reached at adl5182@psu.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.

One thought on “Sport, Community, and Blue-Collar Egalitarianism: From “Save Our Browns” to “Together” in Cleveland’s Rust Belt Dreams

  1. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: Two Years of Sport in American History | Sport in American History

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