Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Thin Skinned

There may not be much fight in the Browns on the field, but there is no shortage of it in the front office if the recent dust-up between Plain Dealer associate editor and part-time editorial columnist Phillip Morris and Browns vice president of communications, Bill Bonsiewicz, is any indication.

A week ago, Morris wrote a column essentially questioning Randy Lerner’s commitment to Cleveland and the Browns given the sad state of affairs in Berea. This isn’t exactly a new thought, (see our article here) but it was somewhat refreshing to see that, finally, someone at the Plain Dealer was raising the question. Of course it may have been too much to ask that this question be raised on the sports pages of the PD but at least the issue found its way in print in Cleveland.

What Morris’ initial column lacked in insight it more than made up for in passion, something usually in short supply at the Plain Dealer. Morris spoke not as a sportwriter but more as a fan who is sick of losing and sees an unemotional owner in Lerner who is seemingly more interested in investing in European soccer than in the Browns. Morris didn’t exactly make a compelling case though by suggesting, for example, that Lerner demonstrate his commitment by spending more. Next time Morris may want to vet his thinking process a bit further with someone a bit more knowledgeable because the issue isn’t the lack of spending by the Browns, given the NFL’s salary cap, it’s the lack of ability to spend their dollars wisely. Still, the overarching question is fair.

Because Morris’ musings appeared on the editorial pages we figured it would be mostly ignored, given the rather low regard, generally, that the PD’s editorial pages are held by most folks. And it was, except by the Browns. Showing that an incredibly thin skin exists within the management and ownership ranks of the Browns, Bonsiewiecz, utilizing his official title, wrote a rather terse letter to the editor last Saturday. In it, he gripes that if Morris thinks Lerner is a lousy owner, he should just say so rather than dance around it. He also takes Morris to task for not understanding the rudimentary workings of the NFL and its salary cap and says that Lerner is committed to the Browns because look at how low he’s kept the ticket prices. Finally, in the kind of vague reference he criticized Morris for making in the first place, Bonsiewiecz concluded by asking, “Want a new owner? Be careful what you wish for.”

And Bonseiwiecz wonders why anyone would question Lerner’s loyalty? Maybe it’s because the only time Lerner talks publicly, it’s under very controlled circumstances, such as with the Browns flagship radio station where he won’t be forced to answer anything more difficult than what he had for breakfast. Maybe it’s because it’s insulting to suggest that the reason the Browns ticket prices are so low is because Lerner is a swell guy and not because even Lerner isn’t so na├»ve as to risk alienating the fan base for good by asking people to pay more for a product whose quality continues to deteriorate. And maybe, just maybe, it’s because Lerner employs publicists who can’t edit their own thoughts or letters and instead of easing the situation, which they’re paid to do, fuel the fire by writing letters in their official capacity that impliedly threaten that if fans and writers continue to hurt Lerner’s feelings he may run to England permanently and sell this franchise to David Modell.

If Bonsiewiecz thought that his rather childish response would put an end to it, he’s as clueless as Kimberly Ethridge, the now former publicist of Tyrell Owens who disputed reports of a T.O. suicide attempt by saying he had “25 million reasons why he should be alive.” That’s because Morris revisited this issue in this morning’s Plain Dealer if only to detail the bizarre response from Bonsiewiecz in Saturday’s paper as well as Morris’ even longer, more bizarre letter to Morris personally.

This would be a better fight if Morris was more up to the task. While he rightly notes that Bonsiewiecz introduced a question that had never been raised, he essentially revisits his original point in a typically clumsy manner, concluding that the problem with Lerner is that he just doesn’t get mad enough and that he should threaten to show the door to anyone satisfied with losing.

Well, that’s a plan, but hardly the best plan. We doubt that the problem with this management and this owner is that they are happy about losing, particularly in such spectacular fashion. The problem of course is much more complex but has its roots, clearly, in a constant lack of leadership.

In some ways, this reminds us of the debate currently raging over whether Marty Schottenheimer should be fired by San Diego. On one side of the debate are those who rightly point out that he didn’t personally commit the turnovers or fail to make the plays that caused his teams to consistently lose in the playoffs. On the other side are those who rightly point out that whatever the problem, he’s never been able to get the job done. The man does have a track record.

The same is true with Lerner. As Bonsiewiecz points out, it’s not as if Lerner can strap on the pads himself and play a few downs to solve the problem. But acting as if Lerner is not a significant part of the problem ignores the fact that the only constant since the Browns returned is that they’ve been owned by the Lerners. Ultimately the task falls now to Randy Lerner to figure out why the Browns continue to be a laughing stock and it is perfectly legitimate for anyone to question whether Lerner’s interest in English soccer has diverted much needed attention away from these important issues.

Frankly, the fact that Bonsiewiecz and Lerner are so sensitive to criticism that they would publish a veiled threat in such a cowardly fashion should be enough to scare even the most casual fan. It not only demonstrates that neither “gets it” when it comes to understanding the rights, privileges and obligations of owning a professional sports franchise like the Browns, it also demonstrates an amazing lack of sensitivity toward a fan based rubbed raw by an endless stream of pathetic performances.

If Bonsiewiecz thinks for a moment that most Browns fans wouldn’t trade Lerner for an owner who could actually win, then he sadly underestimates the real interests of the paying customers. Browns fans didn’t acquire their hatred for Modell until he moved the franchise. No one is necessarily looking to push Lerner away, but he doesn’t help his cause by spending a good deal of the season fiddling in England while the Browns were burning in Cleveland. If Bonsiewicz and/or Lerner really felt the need to respond to a column that few probably read in the first place, the least he could have done was show some empathy for the fans instead of trying to protect Lerner’s fragile ego. By doing so, he demonstrated what most already suspected, this thing isn’t going to get turned around anytime soon.

2 comments:

Andy said...

I read Morris' article then I found your blog post.

First off, I can't imagine Lerner being that distracted by his soccer team. It's not like an NFL owner has to work 24/7 on his football club (Browns). I guess the fans just want him to show a little more passion for the Browns. Perhaps wear some of those ugly Brown and Orange sweatpants and a dog mask on Sunday instead of his suit. So, I think the "distracted owner" bit is overplayed and a non-excuse for the Browns.

Pointing out that they haven't raised ticket prices really fires me up. It's like the $250 or so I pay DirecTV to watch that crap. I am sure at the current rate they are still making a profit in sold out Cleveland Browns Stadium. Raising ticket prices at this time would be a nice touch, and a little FU to the great fans of Cleveland. And, I often wonder why Dolan and the Indians take all the flack in Cleveland while this Browns group gets off (still a honeymoon since 1999?).

One thing I am a bit confused about. Is that open-ended question by Bonsiewiecz really a threat? Excuse my cynicism, but that's all I have left for the Browns and their inner-office politics. Like, what are they going to do, sell it to an owner that would move the team? Hahahahahah!!! Sell to an owner who doesn't win? Hahahahah!!! I guess when you are at the bottom any change can be seen as a positive one. I wouldn't care if they sold the team today. Be careful what you wish for, HA!. I say, "Wish away!"

Gary Benz said...

Given how pathetic this franchise has been under Lerner's ownership, he ought to seriously consider working 24/7 to figure out why it's a problem. I agree that telling fans to be careful what they wish for is hardly a threat. My sense is that Browns fans wouldn't care if Hitler owned the franchise as long as they were successful. Again, Browns fans didn't hate Modell until after he moved the franchise. We didn't get to the big game under his rather spotty ownership, but they were generally successful more years than not. As for the Dolans, they get more criticism I guess because fans perceive that they've been lied to. In baseball, an owner can spend what he wants and the Dolans continue to say they'll spend and then do otherwise. Still, their franchise isn't in nearly as bad of shape as the Browns. I guess in the end the thing that shocked me about this whole episode is that Lerner and his publicist felt the need to respond at all. Having done so, that's hardly the response that any real professional publicist will tell the owner to make. If Lerner were smart, his publicist would be the first to be showed the door.