"It isn't easy. You may ask, 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition."—Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof
The Nike Syndrome
I first learned of Nike's assuming the role of official NFL costumer over a year ago, as my college roommate from New Jersey babbled about the likelihood of his owning a "sick black Mark Sanchez alternate" within the next calender year.
With horror I flipped through the completely hackneyed prototype uniforms that for a brief moment passed as legitimate on the Internet.
Head filled with rancorous nightmares of brown pants and the potential for orange home jerseys, my imagination applied the Oregon Ducks' recent uniform standards to the Cleveland Browns.
Will Nike blow our cover on the Brownie Elf, eliminating the logo's status as a quirky inside joke that at some point someone considered the Browns so lucky that a good luck elf seemed the only appropriate team mascot?
Could our uniforms feature some characterless block "B" logo, or will it try to stick numbers on our helmets?
What about the stripes? Surely Nike won't resist the temptation to run the side panel all the way from the pants up the side of the jersey, right?
What I resent about Nike and what terrified me about the prospect of Nike touching my beloved Cleveland Browns' uniforms were two things: one, the black eye of the Air Jordan campaigns of the 1990s and the general tendency of humongous institutions like Nike, McDonald's or 20th Century Fox to perpetually come out with media-pandering rubbish, essentially saying, "Dear America: Screw you! You'll still buy our products!"
I'll be completely honest, as a washed-up, has-been of a marginal athlete: Nike makes great stuff. Sure, it doesn't last long and it's expensive—both shortcomings 100 percent intentional.
There just had to be some slick junior executive at Nike telling his team, "I don't care what you do with it. I just want the Browns' uniforms to look more sophisticated than the Our Sisters of the Poor seventh-grade football team."
Which brings me to my point:
Football in Ohio consists of hearty men savaging each other for hours in torrential downpours or the bitter cold, for three yards at a time. Since time immemorial, football and the Cleveland Browns have provided fans in northeast Ohio with a specifically unsophisticated joy.
When the Cleveland Browns began play in 1946, baseball ruled supreme among the professional sports in terms of salaries and viewership. While baseball players could often live off their salaries at the time, even 15 years later NFL MVP Johnny Unitas worked in a grocery store in the offseason to pay his bills—and you thought Kurt Warner was persistent.
The Browns joined the NFL in 1950, winning the championship in their first season of existence.
Ten years later, though the salaries remained disparate, football unquestionably challenged baseball's longtime supremacy as America's spectator sport. By the time the first incarnation of the Browns relocated to Baltimore in 1995, the Super Bowl often attracted more viewers than the first four games of the World Series combined.
Coach Paul Brown recognized the competitive advantage the distinctive orange helmets provided his players. Running the proto-West Coast Offense, the fluorescent helmets highlighted downfield targets for legendary quarterbacks Otto Graham and Frank Ryan, particularly during night games.
Football and the NFL achieved their cultural importance in America while the Cleveland Browns dominated the NFL in those same plain brown, orange and white uniforms.
In the 1990s, as the country that Cleveland helped build and the league the Browns helped create enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom, the Browns and Cleveland collapsed into a depression from which neither has emerged. The two most important hometown teams packed their bags: The Browns were off to Baltimore and LTV Steel was headed to Japan.
Mercifully the Indians distracted northeast Ohio in the 1990s while corrupt local government and economic globalization finished off the ravaging of a region touted only a generation earlier as "the best location in the nation."
Whether you were a young scrapper trying to make his way in the world on the docks a century ago or an unemployed college graduate just looking for any kind of white-collar employment in 2012, surviving as a Clevelander unequivocally largely requires one major attribute: faith.
I exhaled a massive sigh of relief on Tuesday as Nike unveiled its new uniforms, because not only do they represent our community but also because those uniforms played a substantial role within the broader context of the history of football itself.
To the people of northeast Ohio, the Cleveland Browns stand for something entirely different than the perception outsiders likely anticipate.
The Browns represent the glory and the bounty achieved on our docks, our factory floors and our gridiron. Never before has an NFL franchise risen from the dead in the manner of the Cleveland Browns: In Baltimore, it took well over a decade to replace their well-respected Colts franchise with the Ravens—a move the NFL never deliberately intended.
The NFL recognized the catastrophic loss the Cleveland Browns and their fans would represent. Over 10 years later, Nike continued to respect the Browns' tradition and the fans' passion, and for that I commend it.
Altering the Browns' jerseys would amount to surrender. It would constitute a capitulation to the voices from Manhattan, Cambridge and Menlo Park who a century ago feared and revered the economic and athletic prowess on the shores of Lake Erie and now mention Cleveland exclusively within the context of a punch line.
Such a change would sever the connection from one generation of Clevelanders to the next and eliminate one of the last symbols of hope in a city which needs it as desperately as one can.
With their uniforms intact, the Browns stand before an unprecedented (I've been watching too much Supreme Court coverage) opportunity to inspire their community, not unlike the one Scott Fujita helped fulfill in New Orleans.
Nike's respect for the Browns' uniform traditions enables them to continue to embody that symbol of hope.
Insulted, shamed, bloodied, but unbowed, if the Cleveland Browns could fall so far to the depths of misfortune and despair, only to re-emerge as the champions we always saw them as, in the only uniforms we've known them in, the city of Cleveland will have its saviors.
You can follow me on Twitter: @StepanekButton
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