Scenario

An excerpt from The Classical Magazine's "Losing" issue
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The great clown Pagliacci

Art by Mike McGrath

Hypothetical situation: the devil or someone like the devil visits you. You are doing the dishes on a weeknight or something likewise 100 percent normal. It is not an especially convenient time for a fallen angel to walk into your kitchen, but here he is. He wants to talk to you about sports.

The devil has an offer for you. He knows that you are a Cleveland Browns fan, because of course he does and because you are, in this hypothetical, a Cleveland Browns fan. The devil says, friend, what if the Browns won the Super Bowl next year, but then lost every single game they played for the rest of your life? We can make that happen, he says. He somehow calls you “friend” like three times in the space of maybe 2.5 sentences. He seems to be in a hurry, as if there are numerous other more important hypothetical situations in which he has to appear, situations regarding places more remarkable than your clean but still kind of gross kitchen and the saddest team in the NFL.

The devil is pressing you for an answer, now. No, you can’t sleep on it. He doesn’t have time to leave this offer on the table. If you are a no, he has to move down the line to the next Browns fan. Nothing personal, he’s not trying to pressure you, it’s just something where he either has to move forward or move on.

***

There is no special magic in the way that the Cleveland Browns are bad at football. There is some comfortable bathos in the steady march of their badness, but zero magic. The Browns can only hurt your feelings when you forget that they are the Browns. It’s not magic that this keeps happening, it’s just that you trick yourself into forgetting it all. But it still feels pretty bad, even after you remember that it’s just sports and that you should be used to this by now.

The Browns are 77–163 since their return to the NFL in 1999. It’s tempting to say “since an expansion franchise confusingly also called the Cleveland Browns joined the league.” The original Browns had a winning percentage of .598 through their demise in 1995, even with a few pretty bad stretches in the mix.

In 2013, the Browns lost a game that they had been winning by 13 points with one minute left. In 2001, they gave up two touchdowns in the final 28 seconds of regulation, and then lost via an overtime pick-six. In addition to the incendiary-hilarious losses, there are lots of more traditional losses, narrow defeats and broad pummelings. The Browns have a losing record against the Jacksonville Jaguars as a franchise. The Browns have lost a game that they were winning with zero seconds left in the fourth quarter.

***

The devil hasn’t left yet, despite repeated claims that he has to run. He wants to make a deal. Really any kind of deal. He just wants to feel like he accomplished something today. So, okay, what if instead of winning a Super Bowl, the new Browns just disappeared, Eternal Sunshine-style. He would give you a set of replacement memories. Say, the Browns left for Baltimore in 1995 and you became a big Ravens fan just like everyone else in Cleveland.

The devil further promises that he’ll get you a stipend for one round-trip flight to Baltimore and two decent tickets, plus hotel and per diems, and you can attend one Ravens game in person every four years. He also offers to replace your gently used Browns stuff with Ravens stuff. No, yeah, he doesn’t like the purple either, it’s just not all that dignified, even compared to orange and brown which at least has an innocence to its ugliness. So: how about it?

***

The Browns, like every other for-profit sports franchise, are secretly an improv theater troupe. Their performances have no script but follow a long style sheet of rules. The set-up requires a second troupe to battle against, and each performance has a winner and a loser. In general the audiences choose a side to root for, although a lot of people have started rooting for individual actors through a companion play-at-home game. There’s a TV channel that just shows certain specific types of scenes as they happen.

The show is frequently interrupted by advertisements for boner pills or trucks. Retired actors have been proven to suffer from chronic brain injuries. Tickets are too expensive. The larger improv theater cartel has a self-seriousness so asinine and loopy that it’s kind of alarming. But football is so fun to watch. The show usually happens on Sunday, a fact that is just lousy with significance. We have managed to dismantle most of the public sacraments in America in favor of putting shitty versions of them inside the TV. But going into the TV only makes football stronger.

Sports, especially football at this moment in United States spacetime, are a safe space for people to come together and pull for similar outcomes. Even in light of comical rich-person owner venality and CTE and all those diet beer advertisements, we would like to have football.

Broadly speaking, the vanishing togetherness is what we want. If we must have something to fend off life’s basic emptiness, we will have football.

***

The devil asks to use the bathroom and takes sort of a long time in there. Okay, now he’s back to the kitchen. You give him something to drink. He’s not a total dick, and now you two are just kind of chatting. He knows enough about you to make graceful, chill small talk that’s not boring. He answers a few questions about being the devil in a forthright way.

One thing he likes about his job is that he gets to be out of the office, talking to people, but there is still a certain percentage of bullshit in any job, even jobs that are like a real vocation. For every time he gets to go around offering people insane wealth but they’re definitely dying in five years, or being super handsome but then going blind, there are weeks of nothing but consecutive tiny incremental devilments, really boring shit, stuff that doesn’t show up in the box score. You can’t fight it, even if you are the devil.

***

If the Browns were an actual theater company you would throw rotten organic matter at them. You would probably not even waste the time and mitochondrial-level emotional expenditure to show up and throw garbage at them, if you actually judged them by the on-field product. They are more like a bit of experimental theater in which a guy starts reciting his lines but then always falls down a flight of stairs. Sometimes the theater fucks with you and you can’t see where the stairs are, but they’re there, and the guy is definitely going to fall down them. There is an inside-out honor in appreciating mediocrity, but sincerely caring about the current Cleveland Browns franchise requires actual derangement.

But being a Browns fan still feels pretty good.

***

Okay, so look, what about this, the devil says. Maybe let me just erase the NFL completely from your mind. What about college football, you say. The devil thinks about it for a minute. Okay, it has to be all football, all of it gone. Just excised. Even down to the conceptual level, like you never had those minutes of irreducible joy playing tackle football in the snow when you were a kid, you never passed for 1,500 yards in a game with Jeff Hostetler on Madden ’96. Eric Metcalf never had two punt returns for TDs against the Steelers, everybody’s chronic brain injuries undone. You'll have so much more free time on fall weekends.

The devil doesn’t want to pressure you into anything. Yes, he admits he was trying to pressure you before. But now he’s really loving this whole encounter. This is not-work, just that kind of hypothetical situation he used to dream about back before he was doing this for a living. Just think about it for a while, how about that? Text me or something, he says with what feels like genuine interpersonal warmth, when you’re ready.

--

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