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A culture of winning and dying in Cleveland: Phillip Morris

September 23, 2018

A culture of winning and dying in Cleveland: Phillip Morris

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Benny wore a T-shirt to Thursday night’s game that summed up the enduring despair of legions of die-hard Cleveland Browns fans. The slogan read: “Win one before I die.”

The lament was less a parody statement than a plea for minimal return on considerable investment, both financial and emotional. Shortly before midnight, my friend got his wish. The Browns defeated the New York Jets, 21-17. It felt like an early Christmas.

Now, prognosticators and casual fans are brimming with happiness and cautiously talking about an emerging culture of winning that may replace the moribund tradition of the beloved franchise. Suddenly Benny, and others dare raise their expectations.

The morning after the game, Benny sent me a text message that had the words “Super Bowl” and “Baker Mayfield” in the same sentence. Hope springs eternal in Cleveland. We are an optimistic bunch. It’s part of our resilience.

While the Browns remain hard at work developing a culture of winning, more daunting cultural challenges confront this town. Far too many young African-American Clevelanders have embraced a casual fatalism about gun violence. It’s a culture of death.

The evening before the Browns notched their first victory in more than a year, fatal gunfire erupted next to a children’s football game Wednesday in Cleveland. A group of 9-and-10-year-old boys were set for their kickoff in Cleveland’s Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood when their game was abruptly cancelled due to violence.

Witnesses told police that several girls were arguing in the parking lot of the Zelma George Recreation Center when someone pulled a gun and started firing. None of the players on the field near the parking lot were struck. But a 21-year-old man at the center wasn’t so fortunate. He was struck multiple times and died of his wounds. A 15-year-old boy was also wounded. As of Friday afternoon, police were searching for a shooter and a motive.

The same senseless scenarios never seem to change. The slightest disagreements can turn deadly. Shooters with poor aim and even poorer moral turpitude routinely endanger each other along with the innocent.

Disturbing questions continue to go unanswered for a town that daily bears witness to the carnage. Cleveland routinely crams 73,000 strangers into a downtown stadium without any appreciable violence. Meanwhile, certain city neighborhoods are challenged to host muny league football games – or minor street fairs – without jeopardizing the health and safety of children and fellow neighbors. Why is this?

When the specter of violence roams the streets of Cleveland in search of prey, how can a parent in good faith encourage a boy to participate in the character-building exercise of youth football? It seems that we’ve reached the point where athletics in Cleveland’s inner-city should now come with a warning label: Play at your own risk.

“I mean, it was terrifying” Constance Shannon told a local television station when describing her reaction to the shooting at the recreation center.

“You’ve got a park full of kids that are coming to do something positive, and then they’re terrified. You don’t know what child to save first. I laid on my son and I dragged him into the changing station where he was safe.”

When a young mother is confronted with the dilemma of debating what child to protect when bullets start flying, something is terribly amiss – the culture of a community is desperately in need of a reset.

I never met Zelma George but I suspect she would grieve. The pioneering artist and Cleveland philanthropist who died in 1994 would undoubtedly be horrified to learn that the community center that bears her name was the scene of fatal violence this past week. She used her music and her art to promote a culture of community and of healing. This town needs more Zelma Georges.

The Browns appear to be poised to win. That would be extraordinary. Now, we need more Cleveland communities committed to pulling the plug on a unabated culture of violence. That could prove legendary.  It’s time for a Cleveland miracle both on and off the gridiron.

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