How should a sports fan cope with a team owner who, decade after decade, proves to be incompetent or even, at times, disgraceful?
Unfortunately, few parts of America have more experience with this problem than ours. It’s a noose that binds us together.
I will make the list but not explain it. That’s too much salt in the wounds. In my childhood, the standard was set by George Preston Marshall (“Redskins”), Calvin Griffith (Senators) and Bob Short (expansion Senators). Since then, we’ve had Peter Angelos, the Orioles killer and MASN-dispute foe of the Nationals, and Daniel Snyder, who has curated the past two decades of his NFL team’s quarter-century slump. With his Wizards hat on, Ted Leonsis avoids this group but still vexes us with General Manager-for-life Ernie Grunfeld, who makes Supreme Court judges seem transient.
Right now, we have two fresh examples of “What Did We Do to Deserve This?” Cornerback Josh Norman says fans boo the Redskins so much that they would be better off playing every game on the road. Josh, we grasp your pain. But feel ours, too. Take up permanent residence in this region. Then, if Snyder’s next 20 years match his first 20, we will see if you boo, too.
By next week, Angelos will have a chance to say, “Okay,” and, with that one word, end his endless MASN stall-ball money battle with the Nats — and on probably sane terms. In days, MLB’s Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee (RSDC), which arbitrates disputes between teams, will decide on a “fair market value” for MASN to pay the Nats for broadcasting Washington’s games.
For seven years, Angelos has used legal-delay tactics, worthy of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, to underpay the Nats by (ballpark figure) $20 million a year.
Of course, no one expects Angelos to say, “Okay.” We live in an age of shamelessness, in which the motto seems to be: “I think I can get away with it. Try to stop me.” Angelos is the sports version of this pox. Just as happened in 2014, when the RSDC said the Nats should get $59 million a year for the 2012-16 period — not $37 million as the Orioles contended — Angelos and his lawyers probably will find a way to appeal. Or, in effect, renege. All that will change is that Angelos will be welshing on both the 2012-16 MASN “reset” fee and his 2017-21 bill to the Nats, too.
Everyone has a methods for coping with nightmare sports owners. For example, the multibillionaire Lerners are so rich they simply operate as if Angelos, 89, does not exist. The Nats were in the top five in payroll in MLB this past season. If they don’t re-sign free agent Bryce Harper this offseason, it won’t be because of petty Peter; it will be because MLB’s luxury tax for big spenders is so punitive.
Fans, however, are in a tougher spot. In a lifetime surrounded by D.C. sports fans, I seldom have found any two who agree on how to cope with owners for whom a multi-decade record of .500 is not an inevitability to be endured but rather a fantasy of which we can only dream. To wit, if the Redskins had back-to-back 16-0 years, they would still be under .500 under Snyder.
By a kind of childhood survival instinct, I decided early that no owner — no Marshall or Griffith — was going to ruin the fun I got from watching my hometown teams, rooting for my boyhood heroes or playing sports myself.
My joy in games was my first instruction in the meaning of “inalienable rights.”
And no one, certainly not a team owner who probably couldn’t run around the bases without falling or throw a tight 40-yard spiral, was going to rob me. I knew that the players are the game. And that, to the degree that you could be a player of some sort, at whatever age, you were still in your own game.
Sources of pleasure, in different forms in every stage of life, are too hard to find and too hard to replace once lost, to let any rich knave own your enjoyment.
Despite 40 years in D.C. without a true NBA contender, 25 years without a real NFL contender, 94 years without winning an MLB postseason series and, until five months ago, 43 years without a Stanley Cup, I have never forgotten this lesson that most kids grasp intuitively: my game, not yours.
Unfortunately, this insight is not always sufficient to soothe the sports soul. The reality of the scoreboard, year after year, requires some adaptive strategies. But you must be careful which you choose and how tightly you hold them.
When I was young, I was constantly offered the temptation to “settle,” to focus on the best players on bad teams or believe that “next year” would be better. When I was 11, I scribbled a fan’s letter (under parental instigation) to Griffith to beg him not to trade Roy Sievers, who had won the home run title two years before but was showing age. Griffith wrote back, an owner’s letter, saying that he had no intention of trading Sievers and would my family be interested in buying season tickets. Within weeks, the Senators traded him.
My childish coping mechanism for staying loyal to bad Washington pro teams, while not being contaminated by their losing culture, was to adopt out-of-town champions, such as Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics. I had victory parades — of one.
When faced with a favorite team that constantly disappoints us, we all find our own forms of emotional compensation so we can stick it out, focus on the fun, mute the miseries and still be aboard when Braden Holtby finally makes The Save against a Golden Knight. No method is right or wrong on such a personal choice.
Perhaps you will root for those “mighty” 6-3 Redskins on Sunday. But as a trade-off with your conscience, you will watch on a big-screen TV somewhere with friends but not at Snyder’s FedUp-at-FedEx money pit. Maybe you won’t watch at all; you’re done with ’em. Or you will go to Raljon and scream your head off.
Maybe, if they lose, you console yourself by muttering, “Take that, Dan.” Plenty do. But what about the players and coaches, their efforts, their hopes and your pleasure? To each her own. But I tend to think, all the way back to Marshall and Griffith: Why deny myself something just because of a shameless owner?
After all these Washington decades, I can almost sense how this year ends. On Dec. 30, the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles come to town with the division title at stake, tied with Washington at 8-7. What then?
Some towns and their teams, such as Boston with its 11 Duck Boat parades in this century, have simple allegiances, unalloyed emotions . . . and good owners.
But for fans in the vise grip of bad ownership, like those poor Orioles fans after 115 losses or the FedEx semi-faithful, it’s more complicated. No one can tell you what to do, whether to spend your money or how to feel.
It’s our inalienable right to find a way — our own way — to get a kick out of our teams, not feel as if we’re being kicked by them.
So if it feels good, do it. And if it doesn’t, what the heck, just kick the owner.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.