Sad Cleveland Browns fans with paper bags on their heads

The 5 Stages of Grief for a Tortured Football Fan

Disclaimer: As a lifelong Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders fan, I do not lay claim to the Dickensian experience of sports suffering that Cardinals, Lions, or Bengals fans have historically endured. I am, however, quickly learning what a life of lowered expectations is all about.

Sad Cleveland Browns fans with paper bags on their heads

Sad Browns fans are sad.

Most everyone is familiar with the so-called five stages of grief (aka the Kübler-Ross model) — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What fewer know is that fans of perennially underachieving football teams go through a similar grieving process on a yearly basis. It starts in spring, months before the first game of the season, and ends shortly after the Super Bowl. The severity and length of the different stages varies depending on how long a fan’s team has been mired in ineptitude, so your mileage may vary.

Stage 1 – False Hope

As the last snow of winter melts away and the first hint of real warmth fills the air, all but the most cynical and jaded fans involuntarily perform the mental gymnastics necessary to prepare for another season of ultimate disappointment. They dive into the extensive TV coverage of the NFL Combine and Draft in the hopes that their team’s general manager will finally stop employing a dart board to find new talent. They trick themselves into believing that an underperforming pupa of a quarterback will at last emerge from a years-long cocoon of mediocrity to take flight as a beautiful, Pro Bowl-worthy butterfly with a 90-plus passer rating.

Fans in Stage 1 can often be overheard in the office or on local sports talk radio shows uttering phrases like, “You know, if everything comes together this year I can see this team making a playoff run” or “I know the four other head coaches we’ve had in the last six years sucked, but this guy is a real quarterback’s kind of coach.”

Stage 1 typically lasts several months, even as a team overpays for free agents well past their prime and promising young stars suffer season-ending injuries in training camp.

Stage 2 – Delusion

As the regular season gets underway, even the best teams can stumble out of the gate. Conversely, bad teams can and often do manage a .500 record or better after the first month of play. Such was the case during the 2012 campaign for the New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Diego Chargers among others.

This early, illusory success in one of two reactions among a fanbase. Younger fans who are somewhat unaccustomed to years of failure exhibit a certain unearned swagger, while their more experienced brethren take a more cautiously optimistic approach. They may dare to wear their team’s jersey in public again or start watching games live instead of on the DVR. Either way, they’re about to hit a wall of reality once again, because…

Stage 3 – Déjà vu

… no sooner do the first colored leaves of autumn fall to the ground than an ugly loss or catastrophic injury to a star player crushes the fragile hopes of most Stage 2 fans. That whooshing noise you hear after the first or second Sunday of October in places like Cleveland or Kansas City is the sound of thousands of die-hards collectively exhaling a resigned sigh and perhaps a choice expletive.

Ralphie (A Christmas Story)

Get the Lifebuoy ready, the Browns are starting their backup QB.

Note: Fans of particularly atrocious teams will often skip right past Stage 2 and commence with the Stage 3 Picard facepalm.

Stage 4 – Resignation

At this point, the long slog toward the inevitable begins. Stage 4 fans begin to experience a feeling not unlike that of someone on a really bad blind date who knows it’s going nowhere but hasn’t even gotten through the appetizers yet. They’ll put on a brave face, and maybe even bask in the hollow glow of a meaningless two-game win streak, but the prevailing attitude is to just put their heads down and get the all-too familiar misery over with so they can pretend to care about hockey season or their families.

The critical demarcation point of Stage 4 is Thanksgiving. Once that week’s games come and go, there can be no more illusions. All of the fun is gone for yet another season and fans start spouting obvious bullshit like, “Well at least my fantasy team is good” or “I think I’m just going to become a fan of the NFL, and not focus so much on one team.” Stage 4 fans recognize these statements for the lies they are, but can’t help themselves. It’s purely a defense mechanism.

Stage 5 – Bitterness

It’s a fact that people become more depressed during the holidays. This is doubly true for the fan of a team whose basement-dwelling fate was sealed before Black Friday. Fans in the midst of Stage 5 are extremely delicate and unpredictable, and should be approached with caution. Backers of better teams may be tempted to hold an intervention in the hopes of alleviating their loved ones’ pain, but oddly enough this usually results in the affected fan becoming even more set in their ways.

While there is no typical profile for a Stage 5 fan, they often engage in one or more of the following behaviors:

  • Recording a bitter, profanity laced video diatribe against their team and uploading it to YouTube.
  • Ceremonially burning team paraphernalia (e.g. jerseys, posters, pennants).
  • Stubbornly refusing to engage in any further football-related activities for the remainder of the season, such as watching the playoffs and/or the Super Bowl.
  • Commiserating with fellow fans about the good old days, when their team actually won championships or simply didn’t suck so hard.
  • Making overtures about finding a new team to root for, only to accept later that they’re forever bound to their current dysfunctional relationship.
  • Clenching their fists and avoiding eye contact when asked about their team. This is often accompanied by angry, incoherent mumbling about what a fuckin’ loser their team’s quarterback/head coach is.

Lastly, Stage 5 fans will begin actively rooting for their team to lose games in order to secure a better draft position. This is a crucial part of the mental and emotional healing scarring process, and may be confused with Stage 1 by outsiders. The key distinction at this point is that Stage 5 the fan doesn’t truly believe that their team will actually do anything productive with a prime draft pick.

The truly tragic part of all of this is that, unlike the actual stages of grief, there is rarely any true progress for an afflicted fan. Only in the event that a franchise truly turns things around for a sustained period can a supporter find real peace.