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Part I: "Still Hate You"

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--Northeast Ohio has a Pittsburgh Steelers fan infestation. It is one that Ohioans spray for every Spring, but by Winter the Black and Gold are popping up in droves. I will grant you that the two cities are just over 100 miles from each other, but the issue remains a major concern for locals.

Cleveland and Pittsburgh mirror each other in size of industrial job loss, but very little in the world of sport. The blue-collar, mid-market towns have never been able to correlate their athletic successes to truly make the cities rivals. Sure, Steelers vs. Browns is
the game for every Cleveland fan. However, this reaction is merely masking hatred as rivalry.

Ever since the NFL reformatted to four-team divisions, the AFC North has emerged as the most cantankerous division. Any given game, matching two divisional teams, could be marketed a rivalry game. Cleveland hates Baltimore because they stole their team. Cincinnati and Cleveland make for a compelling in-state rivalry. Based on an Ohio-Pennsylvania distaste, Cleveland and Cincinnati both claim Pittsburgh to be their rival. The Steelers contingency refuses to buy into either of these notions. Instead, Pittsburgh faithful believe their true rivals are Baltimore because, in its short history, the series has had the greatest divisional implications.

The denial of Cleveland as a rival does not sit well with fans. It is the ultimate slap in the face--at any level or any sport. No college basketball fan wants to hear the Cameron Crazies chant "Not our rivals!" They might as well say, "We are flattered that you put us on a pedestal as your top competition and thus a good team, but we think you are insignificant scum. If the schedule did not make us play every year, we would not think or care about you whatsoever."

The hardest part of this article was making an argument for the two teams being rivals. The overall series record is 60-56, which sounds like the two teams have been the NFL equivilent of Yankees-Red Sox. In reality, it has played out more like a decade-by-decade David-Goliath. The two cannot seem to be any good simultaneously:

50s: Browns 16 wins, Steelers 4; 1960s: Browns 15 wins, Steelers 5; 1970s: Steelers 15 wins, Browns 5;

Browns 12 wins, Steelers 8; 1990s: Steelers 10 wins, Browns 5; 2000s: Steelers 18 wins, Browns 3.

The recent good times the Steelers have experienced are directly proportional to those the Browns had in their hay day. What goes around will surely come back around. If the two teams can swap 15-win decades back-to-back like they did from the 1960s to 1970s, it is not out of the realm of possibility to see the Browns own this new decade. Just do not expect both teams to share simultaneous solid records and be competing for the division crown year after year. History has told us otherwise.

To be fair to recent lopsided figures, the Browns are a ten year-old franchise. It is tough to compete for fans with a franchise that has six Super Bowl rings. For a period of time, kids growing up in Cleveland had no local NFL team to root for. If you lived in the Cleveland area and 1996 happened to be your formative year for favorite sport team selection, then you receive a pass on not being a current Browns fan. Beyond this weak exemption, local Browns fans feel betrayed by their neighbors who seemingly picked the fashionable team going right now.

This feeling of local betrayal is mole hill compared to the Mount Everest of issues that Browns fans have with Pittsburgh Steelers fans--wherever they like to call home.

The infestation that has taken hold in Northeast Ohio has featured a influx of Steelers merchandise with the crease still in the sleeves. Until 2005, the Steelers had not raised the Lombardi Trophy since 1979. During that gap in Championships I regionally observed and/or associated myself with many people who I will call NFL Switzerland. As far as anyone could tell they had no affiliation with the sport, no favorite, no outward appearance of caring one way or the other. Suddenly, the modern Steelers return to grace and these friends, family members, and even the passer-by are jockeying for position of Steelers Fan Club President.

At least in Cleveland--when the city finally does win something--no one at the water cooler will have to ask, "Who was excited by the outcome of last night's game?" The heart is right there on the sleeve. In Cleveland the word "lifelong" is not thrown around casually before "fan." It is validated nearly everyday (even the off-seasons) by the jerseys, hats, ticket stubs, and bumper stickers that are displayed even after the hardest of losses. All I ask of other fan bases is the same.

Now that this generation of Steelers fans has two rings, they are set for the rest of their lives. My advice to them is simple: Hold onto that 2005 Championship t-shirt you bought only because your boyfriend likes the team, place it at the bottom of your dresser drawer, never take it out, and when the Steelers win the Super Bowl in 2034 pretend like you were a true fan every step of the way during that 26 year drought. At this point, wear the shirt again. On second thought, buy a new one. It should be easy, you have done it before.
As for the Browns on-field performance, the goal should remain to beat the Steelers twice every season. This should not be because they are rivals, but because Cleveland needs the two divisional wins to get over the hump. If the team is ever to legitimize its presence in a cut-throat division, marking a successful season by solely beating the Steelers is not acceptable.

Look no further than the annual Ohio State-Michigan game--a true rivalry. A successful Michigan season may include a miraculous win over the Buckeyes, but it may not derail Ohio State from its goals. The Wolverines could still finish near the bottom of the league and Ohio State could still win the Big Ten title; battle lost, war won.

There is no reason to believe that the Steelers will not be back next year. The term "reigning champion" may only last for one season, but the mentality of being one does not fade from their players. Even the most fanatical Browns fan must respect this and give the team its due. It is up to the Browns to equal the intensity, as if they finished last season like champions. After all, the Browns players did celebrate the recent victory over Pittsburgh as if it was the Super Bowl. If successful, we may have a true rivalry on our hands.

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