Anyone who knows Browns fandom in Northeast Ohio could easily predict the incendiary imbroglio that would ensue after the team fired coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season last Sunday.
None could imagine that a question from 19 Action News reporter Dan DeRoos would echo so loudly from the news conference where owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner faced the Browns media and news reporters on Monday afternoon.
The debate: whether a question DeRoos asked that referred to Haslam, Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi, who’s doing a fantastic imitation of the Invisible Man, as The Three Stooges was appropriate.
The aftermath blew through the Northeast Ohio sports world the way the Browns have swept away head coaches in the past 14 years. The response was especially swift on Twitter, which has evolved into the must-read medium for instant reaction from sports fans.
DeRoos read a litany of comments he said were from WOIO’s (Channel 19) Facebook page then dropped a question that elicited some audible groans.
That might have been deserved as some called it unprofessional and unwarranted among other things.
And it might not have been deserved. Given fan reaction, it falls in the latter category. The last time the fans got so worked up about a Cleveland team, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert typed out email in comic sans font about LeBron James.
“I’m not shocked, but it’s been overwhelmingly positive,” DeRoos said during a conversation last week. “For every nine that are thanking me for being the voice of the fan, you’ll get the one who disagrees with the way it went down.”
Action News is known for being aggressive and occasionally controversial. Some have said that the question had been asked and answered in different ways several times and was over the top. But after looking at the news conference in its totality, that’s a dubious claim.
Haslam and Banner, who both looked uncomfortable throughout the exercise, addressed the fans in their opening statements, but a direct question about them didn’t come until about nine minutes into the superb grilling that the assembled group dished out for approximately a half hour. It came from current Plain Dealer and former Akron Beacon Journal columnist Terry Pluto.
The matter was next addressed by DeRoos after he read off his list of statements and questions from fans who have clearly had enough, then concluded with his zinger.
“Can you assure the fans they don’t have The Three Stooges running this operation?” DeRoos asked.
Haslam offered the predictable answer, saying he was confident the right people are running the Browns and the fans deserve more.
“They may have asked some version of how is this the right decision, but I didn’t hear anyone say exactly word for word this is what the fans are saying, so that he had to sit there and listen to what they were saying,” DeRoos said.
In that respect, DeRoos is absolutely correct. Since taking over the Browns, Haslam made promises, remains the subject of a federal investigation related to his family’s Pilot Flying J truck stop empire and appears to have broken said promises. Skepticism is the only reaction to those scenarios.
Generally, the sports media is the fans’ conduit to the team, but that road, unless you play with the big boys in the national media, can sometimes be fraught with potholes.
It doesn’t happen a lot, but sports media relations departments at all levels — college, pros — aren’t above threatening a reporter’s access. It’s a far cry from a news reporter walking into Berea and asking an incendiary question than it is for a newspaper’s beat reporter or TV station’s primary sports guy doing it.
“That’s why I had the ability to do that, to walk in there and do that,” DeRoos said. “Because I know, as I said to our sports director Tony Zarella, ‘Look, [you] have to go in there every week and work and deal with the Browns,’ ” DeRoos said. “I can walk in there as the voice of the fan and throw a bomb and be prepared for the repercussions whether they bar me from the stadium or bar me from Berea. I can face those consequences. Someone like Tony, who has to rely on them for access, can’t do that.”
The bottom line: Broken promises have consequences and in this case fan anger resulted. Could DeRoos have phrased his question differently? Sure. The reality is words have impact. A cursory mention of the fans’ anger that both men gave pales in comparison with being confronted with the fans’ actual words.
Given what most people were talking about locally and nationally after the news conference, Haslam, Banner and Lombardi (wherever he may be) should realize they’re on the clock with respect to the mess that is the Cleveland Browns.
With a generation of fans gone courtesy of the team’s move in the ’90s, the fan base that remains could be veering toward apathy, a place that’s been on the horizon before. This time, however, it appears closer than ever and that’s nothing to say nyuk, nyuk, nyuk to.