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Playing by the Rules in Cleveland

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The Cleveland Browns, who finished last season 0-16, have a marketing campaign for this season called “Welcome to the Hardland.” They’ve got a newly published two minute promo video that tees it up. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to watch on YouTube).

This obviously draws on the Chrysler Superbowl video. It shows post-industrial grit, nostalgia, etc.

But I was struck by the moral vision embodied in the narrative:

Somewhere along the way, substance gave way to style. In its soul, football is still about believing in hard work, tenacity, and grit – that you get what you give. And through dedication and perseverance, you will have your day.

This is a core principle of the Midwest belief system, that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will succeed.

But playing by the rules as Midwesterners understand them has not produced success – not for many, many years.

Pete Saunders once made this very point re:sports teams. (If he posts a link, I’ll add it to this post). I can’t remember the example he used, but I’ll use Indiana University basketball. IU won five national championships back in the day. While they always had diverse teams, the core of their program was about home grown talent that was of high character, hard working, focused on the fundamentals, and who actually graduated from school with solid grades. For IU, the high point of this was when Steve Alford of New Castle (home to the world’s largest high school gym) led his team to the 1987 national championship. (An even better example of this mythos is Larry Bird – the “hick from French Lick” – and his success at Indiana State and later leading the Celtics to multiple world championships).

The problem is that this brand of basketball stopped producing results. Indiana’s program has largely struggled since 1987, with a roster of several very different coaches, none of whom was able to crack the code. That’s a 30+ year drought. I don’t think there’s anyway you could classify IU as an elite basketball program today.

What was winning titles over the last 30 years? The Calipari Way for one. Bring in guys headed to the NBA who need to play their obligatory season of college, and make title runs year after year.

The huge challenge that the Midwest faces culturally is that it has a deeply ingrained mentality about the “right way” of doing things, accompanied by an entitlement mentality that this should produce high levels of success. Many have been left embittered because this implied social contract no longer seems to work.

I have repeatedly that if the Midwest wants to turn things around, it has to change the game. That includes finding ways to disrupt other regions, by fair means or foul. And a whole lot more focus on winning.

But that’s just not part of the cultural DNA. Meaning nostalgia and “hardland” talk will probably continue to dominate.

On the other hand, maybe the Midwest will get the last laugh. Systems lose their legitimacy when a critical mass of people feel that the implied social contract has been broken. When they play by the rules and lose, this creates an ever growing group of angry, resentful people who want nothing more than to smash the system.

The new rules of our society seem set up to reward those who break the old rules or game the system. The Calipari Way is but one. Travis Kalanik and Uber succeeded precisely because they broke the rules. Donald Trump is president because he broke every rule about politics and the presidency. Bankers demonstrated extremely low character (greed) and broke many rules (robosigners, etc) yet actually got bailed out.

In the meantime, look at things like student loan debt levels. We’ve been bombarded with propaganda about the criticality of getting a college degree since at least the time I was in high school. How many people followed that advice and had their life ruinated by debt they can never get rid of? Think about all the middle class black homeowners who bought houses in the south suburbs of Chicago, haven’t missed a payment in decade, and yet saw their savings destroyed by a foreclosure crisis from subprime loans that decimated property values in their neighborhoods.

While Cleveland’s clinging to an obsolete vision of how to be successful is not likely to pay many dividends for them, America’s belief that in area after area it can reject the idea of a social contract or rules of the game that apply to everyone may yet come with a higher price than those running the system believe possible.

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