We often ask, “What’s in a name?” but we seldom ask, “What’s in a color?” For the Cleveland Browns, these questions are one and the same: their founder’s name doubles as the team’s nickname and triples as one of their main color. This founder, Paul Brown, consciously made that surname/nickname/color an essential part of the team’s identity,1 when the organization selected orange and brown as the team’s colors (along with white) in the 1940s. A little on the nose, don’t you think, Paul?
Nevertheless, the reputation preceding their team colors during my lifetime has always been that the Browns have ugly colors. That means as a corollary to their ugly colors, the Browns have ugly jerseys, ugly uniforms, and ugly fans wearing ugly apparel from those ugly colors. I presume this prevailing wisdom is mostly due to the tendency for people to associate brown with the scatalogical — so enduring is the adolescent humor in all of us and the lack of imagination. The affinity for fecal jokes at the Browns’ (and by proxy their colors’) expense is only exacerbated by their on-field product so closely approximating figurative excrement (and the lack of imagination of Deadspin comments). It’s the organization’s performance that has allowed the myth of the Browns’ ugly colors to endure, be cultivated, and have credence. The Browns could have played football in shimmering rainbow technicolor dreamcoats since 1999 and they would still look drab.
Because the Cleveland Browns have been bad for the entirety of my sentience, I’ve always accepted that their colors are ugly. I’ve only associated their orange and brown with futility, sadness, and general grossness. The ugliness was only aggravated by the oppressively bleak late Novembers, Decembers, and Januaries on Lake Erie that rob all colors of their brightness and saturation — orange and brown included. It hasn’t helped that the team’s comic rebranding effort a few years ago made their uniforms objectively worse, demoting their orange from an invigorating Sunny Pumpkin Persimmon to a hazardous Electric Traffic Cone Vermillion.
So I allowed the assumption that the Browns have ugly colors to remain unexamined. But as part of a broader effort to challenge underlying assumptions (including my own), I came to a realization: the Cleveland Browns do not have ugly colors.
onsider all the wonderful things with which we associate orange and brown: chocolate, sunsets, coffee, fire, fine woodwork, caramel toffees. Corduroy jackets with felt elbow patches. Even a beach sunset resembles the Browns’ uniforms if you squint hard enough: the orangey orb of the sun lingering over the brown draping of sand is not unlike a Browns football helmet over a jerseyed torso. And you don’t need to read a horoscope to identify orange with fiery, ardent passion.
Orange and brown are warm, comforting, organic colors; professorial, erudite, refined colors: a good Sunday book (before or after a Browns loss) in a leather rocker beside the window in grandpa’s study as the trees outside shed the last of their colorful garments before winter. Fall is the best season, and orange and brown is the most autumnal combo in the whole damned color palette. After all, as Gene Hackman (playing Senator Kevin Keeley) said in The Birdcage, “… the foliage in Ohio is underrated.”
There are more great oranges and browns out there. One of my most prized possessions, The Complete Calvin & Hobbes collection, sits on my bookshelf in three brown tomes encased in a box a few shades darker than the orange of Hobbes’ fur. A drawing by Bill Watterson adorns the side of the box of Calvin and his tiger friend resting against a tree under the hazy orange-brown of the fall foliage above. Even the gold lettering emblazoned on each volume’s spine could be mistaken for orange in the right light.
A few shelves above that collection on my bookshelf (which is chromatically organized, as should come as no surprise to anyone reading this), sits the orange-spined section that contains many of my favorite books, including David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game; Jonathan Abrams’ oral history of The Wire; Philosophy Bites Back by David Edmonds & Nigel Warburton; Guns, Germs, and Steel, the anthropological paradigm-shifter by Jared Diamond; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing in America, a collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s personal letters. Score another point for orange.
The beauty of orange and brown is further underscored by one of my favorite movies: Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson frames many of his individual shots like painting compositions — a rarity in cinema, a medium that favors the fast-moving, quick-cutting, and perpetually exploding. Adapted from the Roald Dahl book of the same name, Fox is a stop-motion animation film, which allows the film to be even more meticulously crafted than Anderson’s live-action films, given the complete control and world-building approach stop-motion animation allows.
Each imperceptible movement and set piece is an exercise in judgment. In short, Fox is a beautiful film. And it’s filled with oranges and browns. The dapper and cunning Foxy slickly leaning against a tree in his corduroy suit. The elegant but fierce Felicity striding through an autumn meadow. The gentle and kind Kristofferson meditating under the boughs of an oak. The incandescent glow of the lamps in their housetree.2 The earthen intimacy of the animals’ underground banquet dinner. (“Does anybody know what this badger’s talking about?”) Look at the following screenshots for just a few examples of how Anderson uses orange and brown for aesthetic effect in Fox.3
The Fantastic Mr. Fox — as nature, decor, and the accessories of our lives had before — proved that orange and brown can be gorgeous, even stunning colors.
There are many nastier colors to choose from: Pittsburgh has that Electric-Urine Dandelion, and even the Green Bay Packers have that Regurgitated Bile Green. And those are franchises with iconic uniforms. Who the hell even knows what the Jacksonville Jaguars are doing, whose teal and gold helmets look lifted from a rejected Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, and the Tennessee Titans’ blue and silver are more befitting an XFL team than a civic institution. That the Cleveland Browns have repeatedly failed to do their colors justice is a crime against the electromagnetic spectrum.
This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the Browns honored their chromatic legacy. Bill Willis, Marion Motley, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Ozzie Newsome, Brian Sipe, Bernie Kosar, and many others. Willis and Motley were some of the first African-American professional football players in the post-WWII Era, making the Browns one of the first (if not the first) integrated team during that era and adding yet another twist to the “brown” in their identity.
Lest I be accused of only appreciating orange and brown for how cute they are, let’s not forget that there was a time when Cleveland’s orange and brown were fucking cool. For instance, how sick did those colors look during the iconic celebration between Webster Slaughter and Reggie Langhorne after a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in October 1989, when I was four months and ten days old?4
There was a time when Browns players would defy the fascist NFL and its totalitarian uniform policy just to splash more of their beloved colors on their uniforms. My favorite Cleveland apparel item is this t-shirt from GV Art + Design with a photo of Slaughter spray-painting his shoes (supposedly) before a Monday night game against the Chicago Bears that same October in which he celebrated with Langhorne.5 Slaughter caught a NINETY-SEVEN yard pass from Bernie Kosar that evening. In Tales from the Browns Sideline, Tony Grossi tells of all the Browns players making Slaughter paint their shoes orange for the playoffs. The GV Art shirt says in spray paint font — without a touch of irony because none is needed — “Original Swag,” and further down, “Before swag, we had it.”
For these reasons, when I think of the Browns and their colors — as I am from seeing Dazed & Confused 50 times — I’m nostalgic for an era I wasn’t even alive during.6 So important were the Browns’ colors, that Art Modell was forbidden from taking them with him when he stole the city’s football team. He could take the city’s soul, but not its colors.
Slaughter spray-painting his shoes in Browns orange is the stuff of legend. Through my association with orange and brown and what they used to mean, I, to quote Kendrick Lamar, “got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.” But you wouldn’t know it if you only watched the team on Sundays. I desperately want the Browns to be that badass again. Right now, it seems more likely we’ll have a functioning high school on Mars before that happens.7
Webster Slaughter spray paints his shoes orange before a 1990 Browns-Broncos game: pic.twitter.com/RK00XoPT
— SI Vault (@si_vault) December 16, 2011
Brown is beautiful. Orange is beautiful. The Cleveland Browns colors have a great tint and a fine hue — and it’s not Jackson. It’s not the colors that are ugly, but the organization and its inefficacy that so offend our sense of beauty.
Orange and brown. They’re rich colors, full of grandeur, and triggering memories you may or may not have ever had. Think of orange and brown. Feel the warmth of the fire on the shag carpet in the wood-paneled basement trapped in the 1970s. Taste the inexplicably orgasmic sensation of chocolate mixing with peanut butter on your tongue from a Reese’s cup. Smell the hot coffee percolating in the coffee maker and the pumpkin scones fresh from the oven, filling the house with the smell of home. Hear the rustle of the leaves as your old chocolate lab and goodest boy chases a stick into the woods. Swell with pride and exhilaration at a team that’s going to win the AFC today, a stadium full of the devout, a crew wearing those colors: Orange and Brown. Maybe two receivers jump for joy in the end zone wearing brown jerseys and orange spray paint. A team that’s never existed — at least hasn’t in my lifetime. But I like to think that it did.