Through it all — the moves to D.C. Stadium and then Landover, Sammy Baugh and Sonny Jurgensen, the winning and the losing, the Super Bowls and the ownership changes — the Molster family kept the season tickets Bill’s father first acquired in the late 1930s, during the waning days of the Great Depression.
Last month, that family called a meeting. Their renewal date for their two tickets — located below owner Dan Snyder’s seats, behind the home bench — was this week. They wanted to weigh the pros and cons of an 80th season, and to discuss the unthinkable.
And “when we ended our little meeting, we all agreed: ‘Hey, let’s tell Mr. Snyder that his management of the franchise is not acceptable to the Molster family,’” Bill, now 88, said in a phone conversation. “I haven’t felt all that great about it, to tell you the truth. But I feel like I made the right decision. Some of us have just got to say to Mr. Snyder, ‘We’re sorry, but we don’t agree with the way you’ve been running this franchise.’”
A few weeks since the team fired GM Scot McCloughan amid tawdry anonymous quotes and one anodyne news release, the world has moved on. Maybe you assumed all those furious fans from a few weeks ago had fallen back in line. Maybe most of them have.
But Bill Molster didn’t fall back in line. Neither did Janet Hawkins. Her mother and grandmother were at Griffith Stadium the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Later, her mom mailed Redskins press clippings to her father when he was overseas during World War II. Her family didn’t acquire season tickets until 1966 — newcomers, compared to the Molsters. They traveled to Super Bowls. They bought all the gear. They now have four club seats at FedEx field.
“I keep looking up in the sky and hoping my father will forgive me,” Hawkins said this week, as her deadline for renewing arrived and then departed. “One of the things I do to remember my father is go to these football games. I think he would forgive me. If he realized how much money it was costing us, and what kind of owner Dan Snyder is, he probably wouldn’t blame us.”
I have no idea how representative these folks are. I know there will be tens of thousands of Redskins fans at home games next season. I know that if the team wins, those numbers will grow. I know if the team wins 11 games in 2017, that might seem like an awfully big I-told-you-so to this spring’s skeptics. (Through a spokesman, the team declined to comment.)
But I also know a franchise has only so many 80-year bonds to break. I’ve been writing about fan dissatisfaction off and on for a decade — through firings, losses, disappointments, injuries. And I can’t remember ever hearing from so many generational Washingtonians who thought this latest tumble into the muck was one level of filth too far; who thought that mere eye-rolling was no longer sufficient. To them, the one-two punch of a GM’s firing and a franchise quarterback’s uncertainty called for something more.
These fans feel let down by their favorite team — and not because it’s losing too many games, because it isn’t, really. Coach Jay Gruden wondered recently why there is so much doom and gloom in the air, and you can understand his confusion. The past two years were modest successes, at least by recent standards. Kirk Cousins hasn’t gone anywhere yet. The front office has made some potentially promising defensive acquisitions. Why so sad?
So put the patients on the couch for a few minutes, and listen to their exasperation. They were promised stability and professionalism two years ago, a new way of doing business. They enjoyed two modestly successful seasons, which they viewed through that lens. Now they’re being told that nothing was the way it seemed, that the new way of doing business is the old way again, and oh by the way, that the beloved GM was actually a disaster who never had the autonomy he was promised. Don’t forget to drop your renewals in the mail.
“I felt like we were on the right track,” Molster said. “And when I read [McCloughan had] been fired, that just pissed me off, to tell you the truth.”
Maybe Ashburn doesn’t care about losing one 88-year-old, lifelong fan. So let’s keep going.
There’s Mike Garr, 66, whose family has had tickets since the late 1940s. Garr grew up going to these games. So did his children and his nieces and his nephews. Their stock of seats eventually was whittled from 11 to just two, in section 101. Next year, there will be none.
“We decided enough is enough,” he said this week. “We’re going to root for the team. We’re going to root for the players, but we will not support the management. The only way we could get our voices heard is to do what we did. And it wasn’t easy, and we don’t like it, but they’ve pushed us out. They’ve told us they don’t care about us.”
There’s Larry Noccolino, 63, of Ocean City, whose father and uncle bought season tickets in the late 1960s.
“Now I’m done,” he said this week. “Let me say this to you: If they offered me free tickets for the 2017 season, I would turn them down. I don’t want to have anything else to do with that organization — other than rooting for the burgundy and gold.”
There’s Jack Shitama, 56, an ordained United Methodist minister. His father, according to family lore, paid a couple teenagers $20 to sleep out at D.C. Stadium and acquire season tickets in 1961. Since his dad’s death, Shitama’s been splitting two seats with his sister; they already submitted a down payment for next year’s tickets. Shitama has had a variety of misgivings for years. McCloughan’s offing was the final straw.
That night, Shitama got into bed early but couldn’t sleep, so he got back up and wrote an open letter on his blog for Christian leaders: “Why I am giving up my season tickets to the team I love.” His mom didn’t want the kids to take this step; she thought the tickets honored her late husband’s memory. But Shitama said his father was “a person of honor,” and he felt like a hypocrite investing in an organization whose ethics he questioned.
“It was just a matter of principle,” he told me this week. “I just don’t want to give this man any more money.”
There’s Christoph Stutts, 39, who moved to the District at age 5, and who used the Redskins to get acclimated to his new home. His first game featured a game-winning touchdown catch by Gary Clark in overtime. He went to a Super Bowl parade with his mom. He named his dog Darrell, after Green. He still has a Doug Williams Wheaties box. He no longer has season tickets.
“It does feel like this weird weight was lifted a little bit,” said Stutts, who this week gave up his seats after nine seasons. “No one’s ever taking that first game from me. No one’s taking that parade from me. [Snyder] can’t take those experiences from me. And what I’ve been rooting for isn’t that thing anymore. That realization has been useful to me. It helps me say that these things happened, and this isn’t that thing anymore.”
They virtually all told me they would remain Redskins supporters. Some said they still would go to occasional games, using the secondary market. But that’s not the same as investing thousands of dollars into the team.
“Something happened here that was different,” Shitama, the minster, said.
“The stuff builds up over the years, and you just say, ‘I’ve taken enough; it’s not going to change,’” Garr said.
“I think they’ve just tested us so much that at some point, everybody is going to reach a breaking point, or has the potential to reach a breaking point,” said David Heyman, 55, who is giving up his tickets after 13 seasons.
“It was definitely a nail in a coffin that was in the process of being nailed closed,” said Brandon Partridge, 42, who is keeping his Wizards and Nats tickets but ditching his Redskins tickets. “It was something I had been going back and forth on. On that day [McCloughan was fired], I reached total clarity: that I did not want to mail any more money to Dan Snyder.”
Even some of the fans I spoke with who are keeping their season tickets are doing so with an uncommon level of contentiousness. Laura Robinson’s family has had tickets since the late 1970s; she left a two-minute brimstone-filled voice mail for Bruce Allen, and also spent an hour in sometimes contentious conversation with a sales executive, who said he understood her frustrations. He mollified her, and eventually she chose to renew, although her family is down from 11 seats to two.
“I can’t say I’m now a happy fan, but what [the official] did on behalf of the Redskins kind of made me renew my season tickets for one more year,” she said.
Josh Bortnick and his brothers decided to keep four of their 10 tickets, tickets that have been in the family since the late 1940s. But they’re doing so with eyes wide open, and no small amount of skepticism.
“It’s really more about not giving up the tradition than going to the games,” Bortnick, 42, said. “Look, the organization, the way it’s run is a joke. … It all smells.”
You want something different? Meet Kevin Stroop, 39, who chose to come back for a 12th season as a season-ticket holder.
“I’m so excited for the season,” he said. “I get that invoice, I hang it up on the wall, and I’m like ‘Yes! I can’t believe it, I’m a Redskins season ticket holder!’ “
“I’m joking,” he said. “It’s funny in a way and it’s embarrassing in a way, to think that these guys could act like clowns over and over and over again and it has no impact on me.”
These people aren’t demanding Super Bowls. They won’t stop watching the team. They don’t want the team to fail. Quite the opposite, actually; Molster said he’ll be a fan ” ’til the day I die,” words I heard over and over.
But they’re not willing to blindly renew their financial commitment. They’re attempting to walk back their implicit support for lurching front-office shifts and semi-annual disorder. For messy divorces that feel like low-class political hits more than sober business calculations. For all the other complaints you’ve heard dozens of times: rising prices and poor fan behavior, outrageous parking and long walks, front-office blunders and ham-handed marketing.
Their season-ticket purchases attached them to a team whose actions they’ve questioned, and they’re no longer comfortable with that attachment. It was wrenching for almost all of them; Shitama said his sister “was treating me like there was a death in my family.” Heyman said acquiring his seats “was a lifelong dream of mine,” and that he figured he’d keep them for the rest of his days. Garr said his father “wanted to give the tickets to us; he wanted us to pass them on to our children and to our grandchildren. That was probably the hardest part.”
But for at least some fans, this was the year that enough finally became enough. This was the year for a change, even if it had been 79 years.
“I’m sorry about it in a lot of ways, but I’m not losing any sleep over my decision,” Molster said. “I’ll tell you, I don’t want you to think that I [gave up the seats] for some economic reasons. I mean, I can well afford the tickets. I just got fed up with it.”