Tue. January 15
Why the Washington Redskins Represent the Decline of the Spectator Sport
Something has gone wrong with professional football and its fans, if the past season of the Washington Redskins is any indication. I was born and raised in Washington and grew up with the Redskins, but it has been several years since I cared about the team. To be blunt, Redskins fandom has turned into an unhealthy mania for the team, a craze that is sad, desperate, and, as the injuring of the team’s star quarterback Robert Griffin III shows, dangerous to prudence, honesty, and basic decency.
For most of my life, following the Redskins was a joy. When I was growing up, my pantheon of male role models included Sonny Jurgensen, Art Monk, Larry Brown, Darrell Green and John Riggins. A highlight of my life was not just the multiple Super Bowl victories, but the 1990 season. That was the year my grandfather Joe Judge, a former baseball player for the Washington Senators, was inducted into the Hall of Stars, a kind of sport hall of fame at RFK Stadium in Washington. Two of the other inductees were Redskins greats John Riggins and Joe Theismann, whom I got to meet and chat with on the sideline during the game (and, for the record, Joe Theismann is the classiest pro athlete I’ve ever met; he came right up to me, shook my hand and said, “Congratulations on your grandfather.” I was stunned.)
So Washington sports are deep in my blood, as is the Washington Redskins team (and yes, my father and grandfather were at the notorious early games: December 7, 1941, and the 73-0 blowout at the hands of the Bears). But when the Redskins moved from RFK Stadium in 1996 and into the far Maryland suburbs (outside the beltway), things changed. An obsessive, classless element entered, bringing what has become a pugnacious obsession with the team. The new owner, Daniel Snyder, was ruthless, but with none of the merry charm of pervious owner Jack Kent Cooke. In the old days there was a rickety and low-key charm to the Redskins and pro football as a whole; the players would be seen around town, and winning wasn’t everything. John Riggins famously got drunk at a black-tie dinner and told Sandra Day O’Connor to “Loosen up, Sandy baby.” Redskins Sidelines was a cheaply produced and charming local show that featured players and was hosted by a local sportscaster. Fans of all races came together at RFK and did not gauge their self-worth by how the team was playing. Offseason was offseason. In short, football had its proper place in life.
These days, Redskins fans have become obsessed in a way that indicates serious psychological issues. The coverage of the team in local media is endless and hyperventilating. Tailgating starts hours and hours before the game, and the crude, drunken behavior has driven away many old-time fans. When the team drafted the star rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III (“RGIII”), fans reacted as if Griffin had personally come to their home and paid off the mortgage. The desire to win has overtaken the simple joy of seeing an athlete perform well and now seems directly tied to the mental health of the fan. “These are desperate people,” a friend of mine said after coming home dismayed from a game. Perhaps feeling economically marginalized and intellectually lacking, they pour their entire sense of self-worth into the team. The drink too much, fight, and drop f-bombs in front of children (growing up a Skins fan used to mean taking pride in the fact that we did not act like Philly fans). They demand victory, and demand it now.
All this accounts for why the Redskins and coach Mike Shanahan overplayed RGIII, resulting in a serious injury and perhaps the loss of the star. No matter how graceful, indeed beautiful, Griffin’s movement was on the field, it wasn’t enough. He had to win, and win now. And as a result, he overdid it, blew his knee out, and may never play the same again. I’m surprised fans are not keeping a vigil outside his hospital room.
Many years ago, I read something by Christopher Lasch in the New York Review of Books. It was about sport in general, but it applies quite sharply to the Washington Redskins and our once-great fans:
The rise of spectator sports to their present importance coincides historically with the rise of mass production, which intensifies the needs sport satisfies while at the same time creating the technical capacity to promote and market athletic contests to a vast audience. But according to a common criticism of modern sport, these same developments have destroyed the value of athletics. Commercialized play has turned into work, subordinated the athlete’s pleasure to the spectator’s and reduced the spectator himself to a state of passivity—the very antithesis of the health and vigor sport ideally promotes. The mania for winning has encouraged an exaggerated emphasis on the competitive side of sport, to the exclusion of the more modest but more satisfying experiences of cooperation and competence. The cult of victory, loudly proclaimed by such football coaches as Vince Lombardi and George Allen, has made savages of the players and rabid chauvinists of their followers. The violence and partisanship of modern sports lead some critics to insist that athletics impart militaristic values to the young, irrationally inculcate local and national pride in the spectator, and serve as one of the strongest bastions of male chauvinism.
Or in other words, it’s just not any fun anymore.