By Thomas Boswell
Friday, September 4, 2009
What have we done to deserve this?
For 100 years, Washington has been blighted with some of the worst owners of pro sports teams that the United States has produced. Daniel Snyder of the Redskins is just the latest, though he is rapidly working his way up a list of ignominy that includes racists and rip-off artists, the vindictive and the vain, cheap town-jumpers as well as the merely meddlesome and incompetent.
This week, as detailed in James V. Grimaldi's stories in The Post on Redskins tickets, the team has taken the bad faith prize for mean and greedy business practices toward its own fans. If ticket buyers with multiyear contracts suffer from economic hard times, the Redskins do not emulate at least nine other NFL teams, as well as local franchises such as the Capitals, and simply cancel the tickets and sell them to someone else. Nope. Despite a "waiting list" they claim is 160,000 long, the Redskins sue some of their own fans for the money and, at times, even resell the tickets.
To whom would they do such a thing? A 72-year-old grandmother who has loved the team all her life has lost a $66,364 judgment to the team even as she says she's close to bankruptcy. That might take the cake for meanness. But for stupid moves, my choice was the Redskins suing an unemployed paranoid schizophrenic. Now that's crazy. Another fellow, sent to jail, told the Redskins and Nats he'd like to cancel those season tickets of his. The Nats sent him free tickets. The Redskins, of course, sued him.
The Redskins have a right to enforce contracts. But that doesn't make it right. No wonder there are few rebukes in this town as insulting as, "That sounds like something Dan Snyder might do."
The recent revelations about Redskins tickets, including sales of thousands of them to secondary-market brokers even though it is against team policy, have brought howls of "that's the last straw." The Redskins say they've disciplined miscreants internally. They say there'll be no more Steelers crowds at FedEx Field. And they say the problems involve a relatively small number of tickets.
I say I'm not surprised. Unfortunately, it's the pattern of a whole lifetime for many of us. Embarrassing sports ownerships -- not worthy of the town, the teams and the fans -- are our curse.
As a child, I read Shirley Povich's condemnations of the racist practices of Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, including the famous story that began, "Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday." No wonder, if you were looking for a team with an offensive nickname, you would start here.
As a kid, I wrote Senators owner Calvin Griffith, begging him not to trade homer champ Roy Sievers. The Nats wrote back, saying they wouldn't trade my hero and would my family be interested in season tickets. Within a month, Sievers was traded -- with cash back to the Nats a key to the deal.
So, I learned early how the penny-pinching Griffith made Washington the city referred to, since the early 1900s, as, "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League."
Like Griffifth, Bob Short also moved a Senators team. Povich investigated: Short put up just $2,000 of his own money to buy the Nats, leveraging the rest with exotic financing; then, after running on a shoestring budget and fielding terrible teams, he blamed Washington and skipped to Arlington -- Texas. To this day, the Rangers haven't won a pennant, much less a World Series.
Say this about our bad bosses: They get the karma they deserve.
No Washington fan needs reminding that even owners from other towns can damage us. Peter Angelos bought a contender and mismanaged it into a loser. "You're watching the destruction of a great franchise," an Orioles GM told me. With his team a mess, Angelos focused on blocking competition from the District. Once that failed? Have you ever tried to figure out what channel the Nats are on?
Recently, D.C.'s latest baseball owners, the Lerners, have improved a bit. But they're on double-Shirley probation. For three years they spent too little, feuded with the city and wasted their fresh buzz by fielding awful teams in a publicly financed ballpark.
In a competition this tough, Snyder has had a hard time making headway. Firing coaches, buying overpriced free agent busts and fielding mediocre teams doesn't really move you too far up such a miserable list.
Finally, however, Snyder is getting the knack. It's not enough to hurt your team and your fans. You have to hurt your own reputation most of all.
How are we going to forget images as vivid as that of Randy Clarno, who was so Redskins-nutty he flew in from Idaho for games? His real estate business turned south. Now a court says he owes the Redskins $80,837.25, including interest and attorney's fees. The tickets? The Redskins already re-sold some of them last year to the Rams, Saints and Falcons games.
In contrast, the Capitals say they can't imagine a reason to sue a fan. Just cancel the tickets and resell them. Nine NFL teams, including the Ravens, say that they don't sue fans over season ticket contracts. Other teams haven't commented one way or the other. But nine teams is nine too many to defend the Redskins.
Maybe the saddest part is that these incidents -- and the Redskins' attempts to spin them as insignificant, rare and legally defensible -- takes you close to the heart of this franchise. This is a business that does not appear to have a core set of respectable values. Many who have left the organization, from a Redskin icon such as Bobby Mitchell to a public relations director, walk out the door shaking their heads about the place they had worked.
Many of us learned long ago that you have to separate owners from the athletes and coaches they control, or you're going to have a mighty short list of teams you can pull for. Our loyalties go back so far, and run so deep, we hardly remember their origins. When I got married, my wife said, "Your Redskin trash can has to go."
This is the kind of unconscious affection that bad owners prey upon. To them, we're better than mere customers. We're their marks, their suckers, branded from childhood with the team logo. And the worst of them exploit it shamelessly, though they had nothing to do with the creation of that loyalty.
Where do these bad owners come from? All theories welcomed. One of mine is that bad owners, though vastly rich, buy a team because they lack something. They buy it to fill a personal vacuum. They don't have enough attention, praise, power, social status -- some damn thing. So, no matter what they say, they never really see the franchise as a quasi-public trust, as something shared and husbanded. It's about them, their needs.
In business or in sports, dysfunction takes a thousand forms. But it usually starts at the top then leaches down, corrosively into the core product. Money can, to a degree, hide the problem. But every organizational fix is temporary because the flaw runs to the core. And you never know where it will show up next -- in an unnecessary offseason quarterback controversy or in ticket brokers helping Steelers fans kidnap FedEx field. It could even end up as a front-page picture of a weeping old lady, going broke, who sits, surrounded by Redskin memorabilia, as the team tries to collect $66,364 from her for tickets she won't even get to use.
There's only one certainty. As long as bad ownership stays in place, nothing important changes. In Washington, that has been the lesson of the last 100 years.