Washington’s awkward firing of general manager Scot McLoughan and the subsequent reports that quarterback Kirk Cousins may want out have some fans saying, “I’ve finally had enough.” Esteemed Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell suggested something similar in a recent piece: a breakup to date other teams.
“Not a divorce,” he writes, “but a time to get some space, see what it’s like to go out with somebody who doesn’t embarrass you in public or make you sad. See what it’s like to go out with someone who shares your values, makes you proud.”
Boswell grew up in this area, and has written about being a Redskins fan since childhood. He’s about a decade older than I am, and likely predates my fandom by about that many years. The teams he first saw were mostly terrible. They were also all white.
Fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, and more than a decade after NFL rosters included African American players, the Redskins had the only all-white roster in the league. Racist owner George Preston Marshall once famously said, “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”
It wasn’t like the critics kept quiet. Legendary Post columnist Shirley Povich wrote, “The Redskins colors are burgundy, gold and Caucasian.” And after a thrashing by the Cleveland Browns, Povich wrote, “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”
It took pressure from the Kennedy administration to finally get Marshall to change his ways. D.C. Stadium (later RFK) was built on federal land, and Marshall was told to integrate the team or they wouldn’t be allowed to play there. He complied, but not before squeezing out the opening season of that stadium with a roster that was still all-white. It was about that time that many Washingtonians, black and white, started rooting for a young franchise, the Dallas Cowboys, as a way of protesting the Redskins’ racist ways.
Should Redskins fans who stuck it out in those days be criticized for rooting for a team owned by a racist? A similar question was asked more recently by those who have objected to the team name. (Last year’s Washington Post poll showing that most Native Americans either aren’t bothered by the name or support it seemed to take most of the steam out of the name debate, and much of that particular heat off owner Daniel Snyder.)
The arrival of Bobby Mitchell in 1962 was the turning of the tide here, though not before Marshall asked the future Hall of Famer to join in on singing “Dixie” at the team’s welcome home luncheon his first year.
By the time I saw my first Redskin game in 1966, Mitchell had been joined by Charley Taylor, Brig Owens and other black stars. They didn’t have a winning team, but Sonny Jurgensen was filling the air with footballs and Mitchell and Taylor were hauling them in for big gainers or touchdowns. The arrival of Vince Lombardi in 1969 coincided with the drafting of running back Larry Brown, who became one of the best in the game.
The next 50 years or so encompass most of my life, and almost all of my Redskin fandom. The elation of a 1972 New Year’s Eve win over Dallas in the NFC championship game had this city turned upside down. As a 14-year-old, it was my first truly great feeling as a sports fan. Calling my dad — who had watched Sammy Baugh play at Griffith Stadium — from the Rose Bowl after the glorious Super Bowl XVII victory over Miami is something I’ll never forget.
If you lived here in the 1980s and early ’90s, you know what the Redskins meant to this city then. It was even said that crime dropped during Redskins games, as bad guys stopped to watch the exploits of Riggo and the Hogs, Art Monk and Darrell Green. And how about the team that was the last to break the color line having the first African American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl in Doug Williams?
Many of the great memories of my life, all 58 years, have been colored with burgundy and gold, the colors I used to paint my room in junior high school. I agree with Boswell (and his colleague, Sally Jenkins) that Daniel Snyder’s 18 years of ownership have sucked some of the joy out of being a Redskin fan, but Snyder is a relative newcomer to my party. While it’s easy to talk about dating other teams — or abandoning an owner Jenkins says treats his franchise as “a garbage can for his disposables” — I can’t quit the Redskins. Nor do I want to.
Maybe it was naive on my part, but in between the disasters of coaches such as Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn, I bought into the promise of what came next. The return of Joe Gibbs in 2004 was magical. And the arrival of Mike Shanahan in 2010 also brought great hope. As dark as things may look now, when the Redskins take the field in those iconic uniforms, I still get excited about watching them. And more likely than not, something will happen to suggest that, “Maybe there is a ray of sunshine here.” Heck, Zorn started off 6-2, and he couldn’t even get the team colors right.
Certainly the best way to tell Snyder you’re fed up is to stop buying tickets and Redskins merchandise. As evidenced by some of the crowds in recent years at FedEx field, ticket sales seem to have dropped off. And now that the NFL has done away with television blackouts for games that don’t sell out, the embarrassment of a Redskins game not being on TV is no longer a concern for the team.
But if you like going to the games, buying gear or watching on television, you shouldn’t be shamed into giving that up. If you jump to the Patriots, would a repeat Super Bowl really feel the same as a Redskins championship? It wouldn’t for me.
Daniel Snyder wasn’t even two years old when I saw my first Redskin game. I’d been a fan for more than 30 years when he bought the team. It’s literally his team, yes, but it feels more like mine. And I’m not going to let him take it away from me.
Andy Pollin has worked in D.C. sports radio for 25 years.