Deshaun Watson

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson celebrates with the Orange Bowl trophy after the Tigers defeated Oklahoma in Miami Gardens, Florida, in 2016.

There’s a deep-seated and lopsided connection between Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos fans that dates back to the AFC conference championships of the late 1980s.

Broncos fans need no reminder of what happened then. Unfortunately, neither do Browns fans.

“The drive.”

“The fumble.”

There’s no need to rehash that now.

Few fanbases can relate to the agony of Cleveland sports. But those who root for Denver, a pivotal team in the history of that agony, can relate as well as any.

So please indulge this missive of a Clevelander, who inherited the curse of Browns fandom, transplanted into Broncos territory and is processing the profound dread of loving a tortured franchise.

Because for all the heartbreak the Browns have caused, that irrational love never wavered. That is, until the Browns traded for Deshaun Watson, and in the process, compromised its identity and relationship to the city.

Watson, an All-Pro quarterback with every on-the-field attribute any team would dream of, was recommended for a six-game suspension for sexual assault and inappropriate conduct allegations made by 25 women in 25 different civil lawsuits.

That’s right, Watson had more than 20 women accuse him of sexual misconduct and worse during massage sessions and the Browns emptied the bank for him, trading away three first-round picks, a third and fourth rounder then signed him to an unprecedented $230 million guaranteed five-year deal.

That contract included a wink and a nod: A $1 million first-year base salary and the other $45 million as a signing bonus, which is unaffected by fines associated with the impending suspension Watson was bound to receive.

Though he’s stayed mostly quiet in public since the allegations began piling up, Watson has defied remorse when pressed to speak on his situation. He’s denied the allegations, yet shown little interest in clearing his name. That speaks volumes for someone accused of the problematic at best, criminal at worst habits and predatory patterns he’s accused of.

The retired federal judge, Sue. L. Robinson, found substantial evidence that indicates Watson engaged in sexual assault, by the NFL’s standards. But the six-game suspension fell short of the league’s year-long preference, primarily because of its own flawed and inconsistent history of dolling out uneven punishments, such as in marquee instances of Ray Rice, Tom Brady and Calvin Ridley, to name a few.

That checkered precedent established the six-game ruling Robinson gave, despite her opinion on Watson’s culpability.

But the league gets what the league wants. The NFL filed an appeal, and while the next steps get complicated in a way that law is and justice isn’t, it ultimately has the authority to levy any suspension or fine it sees fit.

As a Browns fan, perpetually embarrassed by proxy and prone to defensiveness, that’s the least of my concerns.

If the league gets its way, it’s likely the Browns will have to wait another year before their $230-million man plays a game.

In a way, that’s a relief. Although Watson undoubtedly makes the Browns better, and perhaps better than they have been in my nearly 30 years of life, no level of performance takes away the level of compromise he brings to the franchise.

A year-long suspension gives another year to process the dissonant experience of watching the success of a team you love hinge on the success of a person you despise. There’s almost something comforting about having one more year of a team capped at mediocrity led by a non-Watson quarterback who’s certainly “not the guy.”

The problem is, the dismay goes well beyond Watson. The front office dragged fans through two full seasons with just a single win, with the promise of rebuilding the right way. That promise was on track. Then suddenly, an opportunity arose. The team veered for the shortcut, unaware that it was compromising the very finely tuned and adaptive morals of its own hardened fanbase.

While the fandom may be inherited to some extent, a product of proximity and tribalism, there’s always been something more meaningful to it than that.

The Browns, in all their well-intentioned failure, embody so much of what Cleveland is as a city, and what it instills in its people.

In Cleveland, good things don’t just happen. Reality presents itself at an early age. Life is hard and disappointing, why shouldn’t sports fandom reflect that? Clevelanders don’t live with the expectation of miracles, they anticipate and often receive the opposite.

But despite how grim that all may seem, I promise, it’s far less cynical.

Because beneath all of that pessimism, there’s a unceasing glimmer of hope. For as irrational as the Browns fandom is, there’s a perhaps even more irrational belief. Good things don’t just happen, but sometimes they do. When they do, it’s earned.

There are no shortcuts, long shots or miracles. Instead, there’s a belief in working hard and doing the right thing. Only then, despite all evidence to the contrary, perhaps our luck may turn around.

It’s earnest but authentic.

For as bad as the Browns were, they had always stuck to that ethos.

Watching Watson someday play for the Browns will be conflicting at best and impossible at worst. But watching the Browns play in the meantime without him, after the team leadership broke its unspoken code with the fans who have stayed faithful far longer than they had any business doing, may be even harder.

Of course it will be. Loving this team was never meant to be easy.

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