Cleveland fans protest goes too far

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Sports Columnist

As I sat up late Sunday night watching television, I tuned in to catch up on the events of the day. The images I saw were ones we have unfortunately become all-too-familiar with in the news lately ­ senseless violence, angry protests, people running for cover.

Yet the scene I’m referring to wasn’t a news broadcast from Afghanistan or Pakistan, but rather a sports broadcast from a football stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

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For those of you who may have missed the ridiculous scenario, allow me to set the stage for you.

The Cleveland Browns were hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game the Browns desperately needed to win if they hoped to remain in playoff contention. Late in the fourth quarter and trailing 15-10, Cleveland was faced with a fourth down and two yards to go. With just over a minute to play, they elected to go for it.

Quarterback Tim Couch passed to the nine-yard line for an apparent first down, and the Browns hurried upfield to spike the ball and stop the clock. After Couch spiked it (during which he double-clutched, prompting some to protest that it was intentional grounding), the referees called time for a discussion. After a short huddle, the head official announced that the previous play had been challenged and would be reviewed to see if it was, in fact, a completion.

After further review, amid angry protests from the Cleveland bench, the call was reversed, calling it an incomplete pass, thus turning the ball over on downs to the Jaguars and ending the Browns’ hopes for victory.

Needless to say, the players, coaches, and especially the fans of the Browns were outraged. Within minutes, utter chaos ensued as the unruly spectators began pelting the playing field (and anyone unfortunate enough to be within range) with beer bottles, cups, and pretty much anything else they could get their hands on. The situation escalated to the point that the referees saw fit to call the game with 48 seconds remaining on the clock, and they, along with the players and coaches virtually fled for their lives to the exit tunnels. (The teams returned later for the final two plays under orders from the NFL commissioner.)

A number of factors led to the debacle. First of all, the NFL had changed the rule regarding the instant replay, so that in the final two minutes, a play can only be reviewed at the request of the replay official instead of the coaches. A bonehead rule in my opinion, as it places the blame almost completely on the heads of the officials if a play is overturned which affects the outcome of a game. That’s partially why the anger of the Cleveland fans was aimed at the officials, because they, and they alone were responsible for changing the call. It didn’t seem to matter that it was the right call, as the replay clearly showed that the receiver never had possession of the ball.

Secondly, the rules also state that once another play has been run, it is too late to challenge a call. The fact that the Browns rushed to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball immediately following the controversial "catch" should have disallowed the review of the play. Instead, the head official said the replay booth had notified him of the challenge just before the ball was snapped, and that he didn’t have time to stop the play. The replay official said the same. Unfortunately, only the two officials know for sure, and it’s likely the Cleveland fans will never be convinced.

Granted, the Cleveland fans had more than one legitimate gripe with the way the game ended. But let’s be clear of one thing ­ no matter how bad a call is, or even how badly an entire game is officiated, nothing justifies you grabbing the nearest loose object and hurling it at another human being. Now I’m as competitive as anybody, and I’m sure I’ve made my wife cringe at times at how agitated I can get over a sporting event. But I have never once considered throwing a bottle ­ or anything else ­ at an official.

If you ever have, or if you have ever followed one to his car to voice your displeasure, you are an idiot. You should do us all a favor and stay home and listen to the game on the radio. Throw all the bottles you want there.

We shouldn’t be surprised where it happened, though. Cleveland doesn’t appear to be the place where the Clark Kent’s of the world go to watch a sporting event. After the Brown’s final game at the old stadium, after announcing their upcoming move to Baltimore, fans ripped up stadium seats and started small fires in the bleachers. And I recall several years ago when an Indians game had to be cancelled because fans stormed the field during "10 Cent Beer Night". Now there’s a brilliant promotion for you. Think it’s any coincidence that beer was also involved in Sunday’s incident? If the owners had any sense, they would ban the sale of alcohol in their stadiums, but it’ll never happen. Not as long as money takes precedent over the safety of the fans.

Perhaps the most pathetic of all were the post-game comments of the Browns’ owner and president. The Brown’s owner, Al Lerner, actually had the gall to excuse the fans actions, saying they had behaved pretty well considering the cold weather. Then, to top it all off, team president Carmen Policy actually said he was glad the Cleveland fans cared that much, passing off their actions as no more serious than snowball-throwing incidents that had occurred at other stadiums.

Would anyone like to volunteer to heave a few beer bottles and snowballs at Mr. Policy to see if he can tell the difference?

Although it’s a phrase usually reserved for NCAA investigations, "lack of institutional control" seems to be defined by the Cleveland Browns. Besides their history of fan violence, no less than four Browns players and draftees are currently in the middle of off-the-field problems. Don’t look for the trend to change anytime soon, though, as long as the administration doesn’t see anything wrong with what’s going on.

After all, it’s kind of hard to fire the owner.