By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, November 6, 2008
My friend Tony was certain when he saw an increasing number of gold towels in the minutes before Monday night's game that it was a Redskins promotion. The team's colors, after all, are burgundy and gold. So some bank or car dealership or the team itself had to be pushing something and was using gold towels to do it. Made perfect sense, since it seems every other night now fans are being asked to wear all red or all white or all black and wave matching pompoms or towels.
Except the people waving the gold towels were also wearing, mostly, black jerseys. Pittsburgh Steelers jerseys. There appeared to be, what, 15,000 of them? No, more. They were in the upper deck, the club seats, lower bowl, even the "Dream Seats" right down on the field. They were everywhere. Maybe, what, 25,000? More?
I got a text message during the first few plays from a friend in Chicago asking me when the NFL started staging neutral-field games. I assured him we were at FedEx Field. They were like an infestation of cicadas, the Steelers fans, so loud they effectively drowned out Redskins fans. They were like a storm of pirates who satisfied themselves at the expense of home folks who just sat and watched. That the Redskins had to use a silent count because they couldn't hear signals through all the Steelers noise is, well, alarming. It remains the lasting impression of Monday night's Redskins-Steelers game.
And it's likely to happen again in the very next home game, Sunday, Nov. 16, because the Cowboys are coming to town. Two sets of NFL fans represent, as the kids say, bigger and bolder than all the others. The Steelers and the Cowboys, in that order. The Redskins like to say they have the best fans in the league. Please, they're not even in the game for consideration of that distinction. You think Steelers fans, no matter how late the game time or how much they hate the stadium, would sell their tickets and let Redskins fans gobble them up? No chance. You think somewhere between one-third and one-fourth of Eagles, Broncos, Browns, Bears, Giants, Seahawks or Packers fans would sell their seats to brokers, when their team is a serious contender no less? No chance.
The saddest thing of all is that I completely understand most of the reasons why the people who own season tickets bailed on Monday's game. The e-mails that are flying back and forth on this subject -- and it is the No. 1 Redskins-related conversation in the wake of the game -- state any number of perfectly logical reasons why Monday night was unappealing.
The traffic during rush hour on a weeknight, as opposed to Sunday afternoon, is unbearable. It's true. The three biggest traffic nightmares in the NFL belong to the Patriots, Redskins and Cowboys. The Cowboys are building a new place that will presumably improve traffic and parking. And at least the Patriots now have an entertainment complex right there at the stadium that provides fans an incentive to come early, stay late and avoid the mess if they want to. Redskins fans have no such option.
Drunkenness and the vile behavior it leads to is a problem at a great many NFL games, but especially on Monday night. Confession: I own Redskins season tickets in the club section, but my wife won't attend Monday night home games (which is fine with her husband). I dread the day when I have to tell my son he's not going, either. I don't need an NFL or Redskins report to tell me about the filthy language and nasty behavior in the stands Monday night or what the league is going to do about it, which is nothing. I saw it firsthand and received a couple of dozen e-mails on the subject. It was abominable, and the Steelers fans were just as responsible as Redskins fans.
The couple I gave my tickets to left the game early because the husband had every reason to believe the drunken fan sitting behind them was going to vomit on his wife's head. No, this isn't unique to FedEx Field. And it probably speaks to the civility of a good many Redskins fans that they prefer to simply stay away rather than add to the confrontation.
But what is unique and beyond the control of fans is that a 90,000-seat stadium is 25,000 seats too many. There's no team or city in the league that should have a stadium with more than 70,000 seats. Tickets are too easy to come by. And at least one-quarter of the people at FedEx go for the purpose of getting ripped, which, along with the excessive traffic, lack of close parking and inadequate public transportation, makes the Redskins game-day experience probably the most uncomfortable experience in the NFL. I've covered games in all 31 stadiums, many of them 20 times or more. It's an eight-hour day for most Redskins fans and many just don't have that kind of time on a weeknight as well as the tolerance to endure the intoxicated bums who make the game itself completely impossible to enjoy.
Nobody should have to spend an entire game shielding his or her children from a barrage of profane language, drunkenness and the threat of fights. I need to pay, in my case, $5,400 a year to get that? The NFL established a fan code of conduct in the offseason to reduce all of the above, yet what I saw and have been told about Monday night was business as usual. I guess what I'm saying to people who bailed to watch the game on television is, I get it. But it is interesting that fans of other NFL teams are willing to put up with the same conditions to see their team. And D.C. has always been an unusual market in that so many people who live in greater Washington are from elsewhere and maintain their rooting loyalties.
The local obsession with the blood-rival Cowboys involves yet another dynamic: race. Older men explained to me nearly 30 years ago that when the Redskins were the only all-white team remaining in the NFL and owner George Preston Marshall was vowing he'd never have a black player, the Cowboys were building their franchise with not only black players, but men from tiny historically black colleges. This had and has special appeal in D.C. Many a black Washingtonian long ago vowed his everlasting allegiance to the Cowboys (or Raiders, who built much the same way, around players like Art Shell and Gene Upshaw, but rarely come to Washington to play).
So once again, a week from Sunday, the Cowboys will have their supporters, more than they would find tickets for in Green Bay or Chicago or Giants Stadium, making a racket in FedEx Field. Maybe Jim Zorn will have to prepare his players to treat this as a road game. Maybe the Redskins will just stay in those all-burgundy uniforms that made them look like a road team out of the Western Athletic Conference or the Mountain West. Maybe fans of other teams will circle Washington on the schedule because if they can't get tickets where they live they know the pickings are easier here. One Monday night might have been a fluke. Two home games in a row would be a developing situation.