Monday, August 6, 2007

Browns or Bengals? A City Divided

Saturdays Versus Sundays: A City Divided

The benches rattled under the earthquake of stomping feet. Arms danced in the air, choreographed to the sounds of 64,000 screaming fans. “O.H…I.O…” Only the November wind pushed peoples’ hands back into their pockets. The aroma of hot dogs and beer lingered through the breeze. Numbers clashed on the frozen grass below.

Sean Durkin yelled to his peers around him more than the giants below that had been reduced to miniatures from the spectator’s great heights. He was wearing orange along with everyone else. And though they dressed alike and sung together, they were divided amongst themselves. Browns or Bengals? It was rare that a mutual force drew them together. A state divided by the fanaticism of professional football joined together to root for one collegiate team – The Ohio State (OSU) Buckeyes.

“Go Buckeyes! #1. F*** Michigan,” Sean Durkin read the banners that filled Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium on Nov. 17, 2002. On this day, the final score would be 27-20, the Browns over the Bengals. However, the only numbers many fans seemed to care about were 12 and 0, Ohio State’s record. There was also a mutual opponent that Sunday, the Michigan Wolverines, who would be coming into Columbus in six days to attempt to ruin the perfect season. Durkin, a student at OSU, made the drive from Columbus to his hometown of Cincinnati for this game with a few rival Browns fans he had become friends with at school – friends that typically became enemies on Autumn Sundays.

Cincinnati and Cleveland are separated by 243 miles and four hours of intrastate driving. Near the middle, Columbus can be found; a capital city rest stop located 100 miles from Cincinnati and 140 miles from Cleveland. This is the home of that unifying force. While on Saturday this power is compelling, come Sunday it’s rare to find such a story. Usually men, women and children in Columbus battle each other even when their teams are not.

The debate has snowballed over the years. Promising futures combined with the reputable histories make this intrastate rivalry as compelling as any other. A rivalry is nothing without its fans, however. And even the weight of a National Championship season for the Buckeyes cannot overshadow the differences and similarities between Browns’ and Bengals’ fans in Columbus. It is a city united on Saturdays but divided on Sundays.

A “fan” is defined in Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “an enthusiastic devotee usually as a spectator.” This is different from the definition of “fanatic” which is “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.” This is an important recognition, as many people only occasionally follow and root for a team. Fanatics live and die with their team. They have emotional ties that often affect the fanatics own disposition. For football fanatics, Sundays often affect Mondays and in some cases the entire rest of the week.

“I’ve always been a Bengals’ fan and will till I die,” Chris Dexter said. This seems to be the consensus from both sides. Fandom begins at a young age and escalates through adulthood. It often manifests itself through the teachings of parents or is erected on the proximity of one to that city’s team.

“I am a Browns fan because I grew up close to Cleveland in a family of Browns’ fans,” Jesse Moore said.

Proximity to a team’s hometown is one of the chief driving forces behind becoming a fan. It takes opposing beliefs to push fans to fanaticism. The constant need to back one’s team and root for them raises interest, opinions and support. “Living in Columbus has increased my devotion towards the Bengals because on game day I am in proximity to more Browns fans than I was used to,” Dexter said. “This is new for me being from Cincinnati.”

As with all fanatics, both groups believe that their team either is, was, or will be the best team in the National Football League (NFL). The Browns have the more glamorous history. “Jim Brown alone gives us that,” Moore said.

The Cleveland Browns were born in 1944 when Arthur B. McBride acquired the team. His first order of business was to hire the great Paul Brown as head coach (whom Cincinnati’s stadium is now named after). The Browns’ first season was in 1946, in which they went 12-2. In 1950, they merged into the NFL and went 10-2. They’ve won four national championships and have an all-time record of 467-356-13.

“For the first 10 years of the team’s existence from 1946-1955, the Browns were oftentimes called ‘the New York Yankees of football’ winning more often than just about any team in the league,” said Jeff Walcoff, staff writer at “The team won league championships during its first five years of existence. In fact, from 1946-73 – a span of 28 years – the Browns had just one losing season.”

The Cincinnati Bengals first season was in 1968. And so the rivalry was born. There all-time record is 240-308-0. They have never won an NFL championship. Bengals’ fans can and should be optimistic though. Over the past three years there has been dramatic improvement in the team’s record – from two wins in 2002, to eight wins in 2003 and 2004. The Bengals already have eight wins this season heading into Week 13.

Like most fanatics, there is an almost arrogant confidence in their team. “The Bengals will definitely have a better season [than the Browns] this year and next,” said Durkin.

Even some die-hard browns fanatics can shamefully admit this. “Although it pains me to say it, the Kentucky Bungles will have a better season this year,” Zach Abrams said. “They have the better team and more talent. However, the Browns are making strides in the right direction and will be better in years to come.”

The Browns currently hold the edge in the all-time record against one another, 34-30 in the regular season, not once meeting in the post season. If the two teams ever do collide, Columbus may find itself even more divided between the two teams and on the brink of rioting and vandalism like that following the OSU/Michigan football game in November of 2002. Verbal and occasional physical disputes often can be seen around the campus streets over the football teams in the fall. Moore and friends already find themselves plotting to steal his neighbors’ Bengals flag.

There are some major discrepancies between the two groups of fans besides hometowns and records. Loyalty is an argument that seems to always resurface. It is an issue that is of great debate between the two groups. “Unlike the Kentucky Bungles’ fans, I have always liked the Browns,” Abrams said.

The issue of loyalty is often disputed by comparing their faithfulness to that of the rival team’s fans. “I feel like Bengals’ fans are [more loyal than Browns fans] since the last 15 years we have sucked, yet the stadium has always been packed on game days,” Dexter said. The Browns’ fans I know are pretty stubborn to the point of ignorance when it comes to a dispute between the teams.”

The Browns’ fans in Columbus have remarkably similar views, just flipped to accommodate their own interests. They believe that their fans are more loyal because they show up every Sunday and always show their support despite records. When the Browns were relocated to Baltimore in 1996, fans were devastated. Two years later the Browns were back in Cleveland under new ownership and fans rejoiced.

“Browns fans are by far more loyal,” Moore said. “Bengals’ fans were almost nonexistent when I got to Ohio State, and since they became decent they are all over the place. Meanwhile, Browns fans are Browns fans through good and bad.”

Neither group will listen to reason nor is there factual evidence to prove which teams’ fans are more loyal today. Fans have their own attitudes towards their team and the rivals. It’s not only the other team that fans loathe; in many instances it’s their fans as well. They have stereotypes and prejudices towards each other.

“Last year when the Browns beat the Bungles and I was driving back to Columbus I could only get Bungles call-in radio. All the Bungles fans called in and said how mean the Browns fans were, and how they would never take their kids to a game in Cleveland. I found myself proud to be a Browns fan after listening to this.”

As long as the two teams remain in Ohio, there will be a rivalry not just on the field between the players, but also for their fans. “Football is engrained in people’s lives,” Walcoff said. “Ohio is simply a football-centric universe, stemming from decades of rich history and tradition as deeply rooted in the area’s culture as hockey is in Canada.”

Central Ohio has become a frontline in the battle between Browns’ and Bengals’ fans. This October, Abrams found himself in Columbus amongst thousands of partying Halloweeners. As he was walked down the sidewalk in his Browns jersey with black eye paint under his eyes – despite it being 9 p.m. – chants came from two campus homes to his right. “Here we go Brownies, here we go.” Intermittent “who-dey’s” could be heard competing with the Browns chants. Abrams excitedly turned towards the loud, crowded porches. He joined in the argument on the Browns’ porch. The verbal war persisted from lighted deck to lighted deck across the dark side yard. An outspoken and opinionated person in general, Abrams made the porch his stage. He began his monologue that sounded as if it had been rehearsed, or at least well researched and from the heart. He wore a proud grin.

“Browns’ fans don't cheer for Kentucky sports. Browns’ fans show up regardless of record. Browns fans did not steal their cheer from another team - "Who-dey" was a Saints cheer. Browns fans have a rich tradition dating back to the inception of the Browns from Jim Brown to Bernie Kosar and the return of the Browns back to Cleveland - the Kentucky Bungles fans have no tradition and the Ickey Shuffle. We have the Dawg Pound, the Bungles have the Jungle - enough said. Browns fans tailgate at seven in the morning, Bungles fans get to the game at kick off.”

Abrams left the stage with showmanship, his point made, as Bungles fans started their rebuttal. “Hey, who won the last two times they met? Who’s got a better record?”

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