Sooner or later, as we ooh and aah over the Washington Nationals, the question must be asked: Is this town's torrid love affair with the Redskins over?
Once, that question would have been heresy. For as long as I can remember, the Redskins have owned this city. But in the past year, I have seen evidence that my hometown's obsession with Washington football is evaporating. In some quarters, it seems to have been replaced by open hostility.
Why now? It's not only because of Redskin arrogance, mismanagement and a string of dismal seasons, although we've had plenty of all three. The main reason is more positive. We now have a scrappy, hard-working professional sports team -- the first-place Nationals! -- that continues to defy expectations by winning with a little bit of talent and a whole lot of heart. Contrast that to the Redskins franchise, which consists of: 1) a greedy, impatient owner who seems to change coaches as often as he rotates the tires on his car; 2) a collection of players who can't find a winning combination no matter how much money is thrown at them; 3) a stadium miles from the District that by popular consensus is the worst sports environment in the Western world. No wonder longtime fans don't seem to care as much these days.
The decline of the Redskins is no small matter, at least not in Washington, where even such minor Skins events as this weekend's minicamp have been treated as major news. After the Senators left town in 1971, spring and summer in Washington wasn't baseball season -- it was non-Redskins season. As a kid in the 1970s, I could list more players on the 1973 Super Bowl team than I could name members of my own family. We marked history by the team: At the hour when Japanese planes struck Pearl Harbor on the first Sunday in December 1941, my father and grandfather (who was a first baseman for the original Washington Nationals) were in the stands at old Griffith Stadium (final score: Redskins 20, Eagles 14).
In the old days, we didn't expect the Skins to win. They fought hard, but lost more often than they won. Then came the 1970s, when George Allen built a series of playoff teams that left us thirsting for a championship, followed by the even more successful 1980s of Joe Gibbs, the Moses of Washington football.
Suddenly, the Skins went from lovable to formidable. They won -- a lot. Joe Theismann, John Riggins, Art Monk were names that belonged to us, names of men who made us proud to be Washingtonians. One of the happiest nights of my life was in January 1983, my senior year in high school, when the Redskins won their first Super Bowl. We called the assistant to the headmaster at my school and told him we were taking Monday as a holiday -- and he agreed. We spent all night celebrating in Georgetown. I still remember coming home at dawn, exhausted, with a burgundy-and-gold painted sheet draped over my shoulders.
Yet the Gibbs triumphs infected the Washington football fan with a dangerous virus -- call it winaphilia. Whereas once the Redskins were like frat buddies from high school -- the stories about Sonny Jurgensen and fellow quarterback Billy Kilmer being caught at a bar in the wee hours on the day of a game are still legendary -- now they became a larger-than-life behemoth whose job was not merely to boost community spirit, provide entertainment and yes, occasionally win, but to be a juggernaut that rolled over other teams on its merry way to January glory. Post sportswriter Tony Kornheiser started the "bandwagon," whereby fans would hop aboard for the January trek to San Diego or Miami or wherever. Some years, it seemed like the bandwagon got revved up in September.
Then Gibbs quit, and sometime in the 1990s, the bandwagon became permanently mired in the mud; the fans wallowed in self-pity. When Gibbs announced his return to the Redskins in January 2004, the fans hailed him as nothing less than a savior. Yet their passion had a dry, emotionless quality -- like the android Lt. Commander Data from "Star Trek" trying to figure out how to correct some problem in the warp drive. Their words had the cold totalitarian logic of the winaphiliac: Gibbs is back, the Redskins will be great again, get that bandwagon cleaned up, it's Super Bowl time once more. Winaphilia so infected the Redskins faithful that several thousand made a daily pilgrimage to the team's training camp after it opened last July. They stood in line for hours, in the hot sun, to watch the team . . . practice. (The winaphiliac finds it exciting to see grown men engage in blocking drills and run laps.)
The local media, of course, have been co-conspirators. The coverage of Gibbs's return was ubiquitous and breathless, as would befit a savior. One local news station began promoting the Redskins' exhibition games in June, weeks before training camp opened. The newspapers dutifully itemized every trade, acquisition and belch made by the coaching staff. One TV reporter announced with great excitement that wide receiver Laveranues Coles had made a great catch -- during practice! The reporter didn't show Coles's wizardry right away, preferring to use it as a tease: "We'll show you that great catch later on the broadcast."
I changed channels.
I'm not the only one. Friends of mine are so fed up with the Redskins and the hype that they have taken down their Riggins posters and donated their burgundy and gold T-shirts to Goodwill. One friend has fallen hard for the Nationals, announcing that he does not want to hear the name Redskins "until September -- if even then." Hard to blame him. Redskin season ticket holders have had to take out second mortgages to afford the annual price increases and it was recently reported that Metro may start charging $25 for parking at its stops near FedEx Field on Redskins game days. For that price you can go to three Nationals games -- and have change left over for a Coke.
Like a lot of former Skins fanatics, I've reached the jumping-off place. The bloom is off the rose. I've found new love -- healthy love -- and am willing to commit blasphemy. So hear me, Washington: I don't give a hoot if the Redskins win this year or not. Owner Daniel Snyder is a minor-league Napoleon, FedEx Field is a bust, Joe Gibbs is probably over the hill and the media need to get a grip, if not a life.
And the fans? We're lucky. We've got the Nationals, a passionate team that's playing its guts out -- without a real owner. Who needs a bandwagon?
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Judge, a freelance writer who lives in Potomac, is the author of "Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington's Only World Series Championship" (Encounter) and the just-published "God and Man at Georgetown Prep" (Crossroad).