The Redskins' season a tragedy of literary proportions

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Greek tragedies endure because they teach us that life is worth living in spite of the anguish and pain that mark so much of our existence. This has helped me understand and empathize with even the Washington Redskins through this dismal season.

Until now.

I'll come back to the Skins, and how they destroyed a historical optimist's frame of reference in just 10 seconds last week, in a moment. First, some context:

I started journalistic life as a sports columnist before migrating to covering world politics and foreign policy. The continuum was clear: Where else do you get to judge so astringently who is a (tragically flawed) hero and who is just a bum? Or record the runs, hits and errors of politics, the trickiest game that exists?

To cover sports or politics is to write about human character confronting extremes of ambition and stress. This is also now true of writing about finance and economics in the wake of the Great Meltdown of 2008. We understand more now about the character of the people who have run Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and AIG than we ever thought we would want or need to know.

This is as it should be. It is the music, not the words or the quarterback rating, that counts. The aura or feeling that a Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Nelson Mandela, Francois Mitterrand or Bill Clinton radiates and leaves with you -- the essence of character -- endures long after their usually scripted responses have faded from newspaper clippings and memory.

Moreover, I grew up in a slowly desegregating American South and learned that people can be led to change for the better. Fate and geography had dealt me the hand of historical optimism as a life philosophy, which usually helps a Redskins fan enormously.

Until Monday night, I had looked on this Redskins season (4-10) as Shakespearean or perhaps Greek. I was confident that this tragedy would contain life lessons for us all. That it would illuminate Joseph Conrad's description of "man, indomitable by his training in resistance to misery and pain," or even William Faulkner's 1949 Nobel Prize prediction that "man will not merely endure: he will prevail."

Now I know how Bad Blake feels as he hits the rockiest of bottoms in "Crazy Heart," Jeff Bridges's wrenching new film about an alcoholic country singer. With one play that had the force of a family intervention, the Redskins have convinced me that my life has to change. I need football rehab.

It happened when the Skins tried what I would describe as a gate-swinging ersatz forward pass that blew up in their faces. For me, this moment -- which you have to see to believe or understand -- says at least as much about the human condition in this grim decade as the Senate's contorted deliberations on health insurance reform or nuclear disarmament negotiations.

When the Redskins shifted almost all of their offensive line to the left side of the field and left their punter in the middle, naked of protection and logic, to hurl the ball frantically skyward as an army of New York Giants converged to hurl him frantically to the Earth, Shakespeare and Aeschylus went out the window. It had all turned in an instant to Franz Kafka and William Burroughs, to the absurdity and cruelty of life, to the dead end of Sartre, who could be heard muttering in his grave that hell is the Redskins.

"Yep, that pass definitely looked like it was thrown by a giant cockroach," Joel K. Estes of Rock Hill, S.C. (an inveterate sports fan and my brother), responded when I mentioned the Kafka analogy to him. He found the play on YouTube after hearing it described as "the ugliest play in the history of football." Mr. Estes did not demur.

So excuse me for not writing this week about the Copenhagen climate conference, which may well have succeeded by failing as thoroughly as did the Redskins. Serious leaders can now strip away the hype, cynical "green" marketing and egregious self-promotion that dominate much of the response to a serious threat to global stability. We can see more clearly the dangers of financial fraud and environmental damage that a global cap-and-trade system pose, and we can move instead toward a carbon tax regime.

But there I go again -- preaching historical optimism even as the Redskins have warned me that I need to change. Tell me, Doc: Can I be cured?

© 2009 The Washington Post Company