What if the Cleveland Browns tried to control fans criticizing the team?

Nov 6, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns fans celebrate after the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Browns won 24-3. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 6, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns fans celebrate after the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Browns won 24-3. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

What would you do, Browns fans, if the Cleveland Browns tried to control what you said about the team by withholding access to tickets?

Anyone who has attended a Cleveland Browns game, or any professional sports game for that matter, has a story about dealing with an unruly fan or two.

More often than not, the situation resolves itself peacefully. Unfortunately there have been cases where that is not true as fans have been seriously injured during or after a game.

The Browns have a published Code of Conduct that they expect fans to follow during games at FirstEnergy Stadium. The codes states, in part, that:

"While we encourage the best fans in the NFL to continue their long-standing tradition of providing the Browns with a great home field advantage, we must ask that you be courteous and respectful to those seated around you and to refrain from behavior that interferes with the ability of other fans to enjoy the game."

"Patrons are responsible for their conduct as well as the conduct of their guests.  FirstEnergy Stadium staff will strive to maintain an atmosphere where all fans in attendance can enjoy the game and other events free from the above types of behavior.  Patrons and guests in violation of these provisions will be subject to ejection, arrest and loss of ticket privileges for future events."

But what if the Browns tried to extend their reach past the stadium’s gates and penalized fans for criticizing the team on social media or talk radio?

That is what Charlton Athletic, a football club in England, recently tried to do with one of its fans.

Charlton, a member of the Premier League (England’s top league) from 2002 to 2007, has fallen on hard times in recent years and the team currently languishes in English League One, which would be the equivalent of AA baseball in America.

Fans are understandably unhappy with the team and its owner, Roland Duchâtelet, and as fans typically do, are not shy about voicing their displeasure.

That led the club’s duty safety officer, Cliff Eager, to send a letter threatening a fan with the loss of his season tickets unless he signed an Agreed Behavioral Contract that would prevent him from making “derogatory comments” about the club.

“I’ve been gobby, but that’s nothing unusual for football fans and was nothing that anyone else hadn’t said on Twitter,” the fan, who asked not to be named, told The Guardian. “They said I was being inflammatory, but inflammatory is inciting violence or hate; all I’ve been saying is we want our club back. I wasn’t going to put it online — my friend put it up, but it needs to be out there, how they’re destroying the club that we all love.”

The fan ultimately met with the club and was granted his season tickets — but only after apologizing for the comments he made on social media.

“I apologized for whatever was said, but at the end of the day they shouldn’t be sending these sort of letters,” the fan told the newspaper. “I am sorry, but I haven’t signed any conditions. I said I wanted to record the conversation so it was clear what had been said, but they said no.”

Teams, most notably on the college level, have always tried to limit media access to their players and coaches, especially in recent years as football and basketball programs have become big-money enterprises.

“Thirty years ago, the media was regarded as being able to help build a college program,” Herb Gould, who has covered college football at the Chicago Sun-Times for more than 30 years, told poynter.org. “They wanted the publicity. Now we’re regarded as someone who can get them in hot water. Things have become adversarial when it doesn’t have to be.”

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But this is the first time we’ve heard of a team trying to actively control what one of its fans says about them, and it is troubling to think what would happen if the idea ever caught on.

Part of the fun of being a fan is complaining about the local team with other fans. While social media has made it easier to voice those complaints — hitting the Publish button on Facebook or the Tweet button on Twitter is simpler than the old days of waiting on hold for hours to spend 60 seconds with Pete Franklin – it has also made it easier to go to far.

Trying to limit fans from debating, complaining and, yes, being inappropriate about their favorite teams would be a troubling road for a team to go down. It certainly would limit what we could write about on this site, and would ultimately drive fans away.

Plus, fans tend to police each other. If you repeatedly send out nonsensical Tweets with no factual basis, for example, people will eventually tune you out. The same with websites; if you don’t consistently show that you know what you are talking about, readers will turn elsewhere for information.

It’s an environment that works pretty well and really doesn’t need a team acting in the role of the thought police.

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We want to hear from you Browns fans. What would you do if the team limited your ability to attend a game just because of your comments on social media? Would you change your behavior or acquiesce to the team’s wishes?

Have your say in the comments and let us know what you think.