The fiercely devoted gathered beneath a burgundy-and-gold tent outside FedEx Field, where the Washington Redskins were an hour from kickoff.
All around were members of Extremeskins.com, a team-sponsored message board for people whose passion is measured in feathered chief tattoos and ticket-stub collections that long ago cracked three figures. Weaving through a crowd layered in Redskins couture, a man in a white wig, a top hat and a burgundy-and-gold suit showed off a button on his lapel that read, “UNCLE SAM IS A SKINS FAN!”
Amid the throng, Ian Washburn picked fried turkey from a paper plate. A third-generation season ticket holder, Washburn has posted on the message board more than 6,000 times. Just like his fellow die-hards, he has debated draft picks, grumbled about coaching decisions and agonized over (the seemingly endless) losses. What made the Northern Virginia real estate broker different was noticeable only to the most discerning eyes.
After a lifetime of support for all things Redskins, Washburn, 37, reached an uncomfortable conclusion last year: He could no longer support a name and mascot that offended so many.
“A growing number of people weren’t happy with the team I love,” he said. “The discomfort had spread to me. It was contagious.”
Though Native Americans have led the protests, some fans are with them, either because they share Washburn’s misgivings or have grown weary of the relentless criticism. But nearly all Washburn’s hardcore compatriots vehemently resist change, making him an outcast among his own tribe.
After his epiphany, Washburn found a manufacturer that makes custom patches in China. Over eight months, he spent about 100 hours working with the company to perfect the font and colors of cloth strips that said, simply, “WASHINGTON.” He ordered 30 extra in case, some day, other fans wanted to use them. Total cost: more than $300.
To the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washburn wore a puffy, burgundy jacket with a ruler-sized patch stripped across the back. Peeking out just above the zipper was a smaller patch — this one covering “REDSKINS” — on the front of his No. 33 “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh jersey. Stuffed in his pocket: a burgundy-and-gold scarf that began as two scarves, each bought for $5 in a thrift shop and sent to a tailor three times (at a cost of $50) before the combination looked authentic.
Most people at the tailgate party were oblivious to Washburn’s carefully edited gear. But Christie Lopez, one of the organizers, was well aware — and dismissive — of his convictions.
People don’t understand what the word really means, insisted Lopez, who has missed just one home game in the past decade and describes herself as one-quarter Cherokee. Fans are Redskins. She is a Redskin.
Washburn, the reluctant crusader, kept picking at his turkey as she spoke. He hesitates to argue with other fans because he is just like them in every way but one, and for most of his life, he made the exact same arguments.
Still, his desire now for the team’s name to change is no less intense than his desire for winning seasons. It has prompted him to go public with his views.
“All the Native themes are going to go. They need to go,” he said after the tailgate. “I want this cancer to go away. And it is a cancer.”
On a frigid Sunday evening in 1992, Washburn’s family crowded around their TV, waiting for the Redskins to face the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI. Then, the eighth-grader saw something unexpected. People had gathered outside Minneapolis’s Metrodome to protest his team’s name.
“They should be honoring us,” he thought, angry. “We’re in the Super Bowl.”
That protest introduced the long-simmering name controversy to hundreds of thousands of Redskins fans and laid a foundation for at least some of them to decide that the moniker must go.
A Washington Post poll conducted in June 2013 found that the overwhelming majority of local fans supported the moniker. But one in five wanted it to change — and that was before President Obama, a parade of sports commentators, lawmakers and civil rights leaders voiced objections. The name has been parodied on “South Park,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and, just this week, the cover of The New Yorker magazine.
Team owner Daniel Snyder argues that the name honors Native Americans and has vowed never to change it. His stubbornness has drawn praise from many fans while irritating others, such as Jenn Rubenstein.
“I’m disgusted thinking about it,” said Rubenstein, 33, who canceled her season tickets partly as a result.
Still, Eric Bickel, a host of “The Sports Junkies” on 106.7 FM the Fan, doesn’t foresee that disgust becoming widespread among Redskins Nation. “It’s like fandom trumps everything,” he said.
For Washburn, fandom trumped the issue for more than three decades.
His grandfather, co-founder of a District real estate agency, had attended games since at least the 1940s, and often talked of being in Griffith Stadium as word spread about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Washburn’s only memory that pre-dates his first game in RFK Stadium, at age 5, is his brother’s birth. He cried himself to sleep a year later when the team lost in the Super Bowl on what was then the worst day in his 6-year-old life. The first melody he learned on his Casio keyboard was “Hail to the Redskins,” the song an organist would later play at his grandfather’s funeral.
Washburn resented the protesters who confronted him at a December 1992 game against the Dallas Cowboys. Joe Gibbs is beloved, he thought. How could anyone dislike the team?
Yet a friend at Langley High School — the only Native American Washburn knew — told him he associated “Redskins” with genocide. He faced the issue again in a Native American studies course at the University of Oregon.
It wasn’t until he moved back to the Washington area in 2002 that his long-ignored brushes with the controversy began to weigh on him. He wondered if the mascot would change one day. If it should.
Then, in late 2012, the team won seven straight games and made the postseason. Washburn decided to take his godson, who was 11, to his first-ever playoff game, where a neighbor took a picture of them in their gear. Washburn posted the photograph to Facebook the next day. In the hours that followed, he couldn’t stop staring at it.
“The more I looked at the picture,” he said, “the more I felt it was wrong.”
Soon after, Washburn took his newfound beliefs to the Extremeskins message board, albeit behind the anonymity of a screen name.
Posters cursed at him. They called him a “troll” and a “clown” and his perspective “shameful.” The topic thread today includes more than 10,000 comments.
Now, by talking to the Post, Washburn wonders if he’ll face more extreme vitriol. He wouldn’t be surprised. Not even his father agrees with him.
“It’s like taking away something that’s been a part of you for so long,” said Geoffrey Washburn, who is 67.
Washburn works with his dad at the real estate agency that his grandfather started. Pinned to his father’s corkboard is a button that reads, “I SUPPORT THE NAME.” Tacked to the wall above Washburn’s own desk is a framed team pennant with strips of black electrical tape through the logo and the word “REDSKINS.”
Tape also censors names and logos throughout Washburn’s Arlington brick home (built in 1937, he notes, the year the Redskins debuted in the District). Strips cover a mini helmet, the glass of a framed montage of 41 ticket stubs, and a vintage poster that hangs on a wall just beneath a wooden slat he secretly removed from one of the family’s old seats in RFK Stadium.
He tries to refrain from saying “Redskins,” too. He prefers “the Burgundy and Gold” or “we” (if the team is winning) or “they” (if it’s losing). But a habit he developed as a toddler has been hard to break.
“Skins,” to his frustration, often slips out.