The Owner and the Onus

Skins tix

Those tickets up there? Those are my Magna Carta. My Holy Grail. The pebbles that grew into stones that evolved into the cinderblocks that became the foundation of my adult life.

And this post is going exactly where you think it’s going _ unless you think it’s going to be about cancer, sorry not this time_ but first, a love story.

My childhood memories before the 1982 NFL season, particularly when it came to football, are vague. I remember briefly adopting the Cincinnati Bengals as my favorite team in 1981 because they switched to the tiger stripes on their jerseys and they happened to make the Super Bowl. I was 7. My first favorite player was Cris Collinsworth, because he was Cincinnati’s best wide receiver. The fact we shared the same skin tone was merely coincidental.

The flirtation with the Bengals didn’t last. It couldn’t last. Grow up in the Washington D.C. suburbs as I did, and really, you had no choice. There was the Redskins and there was everything else. And by everything else I mean God, family, friends, work, life, whatever.

None of that mattered Sunday afternoons, especially not in 1982, not with Riggo and the Hogs and Theismann and the Fun Bunch and Dexter and the Pearl Harbor Crew and Coach Gibbs and nattily clad owner Jack Kent Cooke, so perfectly dubbed “The Squire” by Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser.

That 1982 team was my first true love. They were instant gratification. Sundays would come and Sundays would go, and they’d find a way to win. The joy those triumphs brought my family, particularly my father’s side, was indescribable. My grandmother would make spaghetti and bring cucumbers soaked in vinegar. One of my aunts would bring deviled eggs. We’d eat after the 1 p.m. games _ at halftime during the 4 p.m. games _ and watch and celebrate.

They won the NFC East during a season truncated by a two-month players’ strike and crushed the Detroit Lions in the first round of the playoffs. Then they took out the Minnesota Vikings the next week _ with Riggins bowing to the masses after 37 wearying carries for 185 bruising yards as RFK Stadium trembled in delight.

The Dallas Cowboys, with Tom Landry and Tony Dorsett and Randy White and that ugly star and nauseating aura of entitlement, awaited in the NFC Championship game.

And my dad got his hands on two tickets. He could have taken my mom. He could have taken my grandfather. He could have taken my uncle or any one of his buddies.

He didn’t. He took me. And it changed me _ and bonded us _ in a way that I will never forget.

I remember it was cold. We had a thermos of hot chocolate. We sat a million miles away _ at least it seemed a million miles away to this 8-year-old _ and it couldn’t have mattered less. I remember looking at the scoreboard as it flashed jersey numbers (for some reason it seemed like linebacker Neal Oklewicz made every tackle for the Redskins that day) and chanting “We Want Dallas” at every stoppage in play.

I’d love to tell you I remember Darryl Grant causing the earthquake that sent the Redskins to the Super Bowl but I don’t. I do remember the glee of 55,000 true believers walking out to the parking lot, some of them singing “Hail to the Redskins” at the top of their lungs. The way it snowed big snow flakes on the way home. The look on my typically taciturn father’s face. The smile lasted for days. Maybe weeks.

Seeing him happy made me happy. I became more than his boy that day, I became his buddy. We felt like equals. We felt like friends.

And while those moments became more fleeting as I grew up and our relationship became more distant before his death in 2010, the fact those ticket stubs remained on his dresser for years afterward served as a sign to me that he wanted to hold onto a part of that day forever. The only time I truly lost it after he cancer took him so abruptly at age 59 didn’t come as I stood at his bedside as he took his final breath, it was when I discovered the ticket stubs while taking an inventory of his things. Though my parents divorced when I was 17, the tickets remained in the same spot they’d always been. My guess _ my hope _ is his memory of that day did too.

The Redskins won the Super Bowl the week after that Cowboys’ game and two more by the time I graduated high school. My passion for them is what led me to become a sportswriter for a living. (Well that and the realization during my one inglorious fall as the smallest offensive lineman/linebacker in the history of the 75-pound Waldorf Wildcats that I was probably going to spend most of my teens in traction if I continued to play.)

My fandom for the franchise has flickered more than flared over the last two decades, though the embers remain ever vibrant just waiting to be stoked.

After all, I may be the only man in America to have this in his closet:

Schroeder

That is the jersey of former Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder. He’s known mostly as the guy who came in when Joe Theismann’s leg was snapped in two during a Monday Night Football game like a first grader getting his hands on a Twix. I didn’t care that his prowess for throwing the deep ball was only matched by his petulance when he got benched. He was my guy. (And I maintain that if Doug Williams knee forced him out of Super Bowl XXII for the entire game Schroeder would have led them to victory anyway).

While I haven’t lived in DC for 15 years, I’ve done what I can to catch them when I can.

I flew halfway across the country to watch Jim Zorn coach in Dallas. I paid more than $400 bucks to watch Peyton Manning fillet them in Indy. I jumped out and down for 10 minutes the day Joe Gibbs returned in 2004. I was crushed when Sean Taylor was murdered and pissed when Art Monk spent year after year on the waiting list before going into the Hall of Fame.

And because of all that, because of the years and the money and the inordinate amount of time I’ve spent fixated on a franchise that made me want to become a sports writer before I ever figured out I wouldn’t be good at anything else, I can say this.

The nickname has to go. Has to.

And here’s why: because it doesn’t matter. The name itself _ like the nicknames for basically every other team in every sport at every level _ does not matter. People do not root for teams for the nickname. They might have an affinity for certain jerseys because they look cool. They may swag out because there’s something about how the colors silver-and-black go together or the way the NY falls on a Yankee cap, but the names themselves do not matter.

My connection with the Redskins has nothing to do with the word Redskins. My connection is with the players  _ my heroes _ that brought those jerseys to life. My connection is with the fans _ my mother and father especially _ who communed every Sunday at the altar of the burgundy and gold and spent every Saturday night watching “Redskins Sidelines” on Channel 9 (RIP Glenn Brenner) and every Monday at the dinner table obsessing over every triumph and mistake the day before.

That day I walked into RFK, the guys wearing the home whites could have been named anything. Seriously, anything. Not for one second in 32 years have I ever expressed an affinity for the Redskins other than the way the name evokes such strong feelings about my childhood.

But it would have been that way if they were called anything else. Because it does. not. matter.

I used to think the argument over whether the name was racist and offensive was dumb. It’s just a name and an emblem. It’s laundry, right? 

Not really. The first domino fell when trying to get my son (who was 3 at the time) to watch a game with me. He asked me who was playing. I told him the Redskins were playing.

“What’s a Redskins?” he asked.

“Hmmm. Well, see Colin, they’re well. What I mean is … it’s ummm.”

And then I just gave up. The truth is it’s a compound word. Red and skin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it started out as a way to describe the tone of Native Americans along the Delaware River Valley but over the years “redskin lost its neutral, accurate descriptive sense and became a term of disparagement.”

OK then. You’d think that’d be enough to start a relatively short and effective conversation about maybe switching the name right?

Well, not exactly.

Owner Dan Snyder _ who like me grew up in the DC area and basked in the glory and the agony of each season as a child and who unlike me became smart enough and rich enough to buy the team for himself _ has dug in his heels. He told ESPN recently “The Washington Redskins fan base represents honor, represents respect, represents pride.”

Snyder also put his money where his nickname is, establishing the Original Americans Foundation early this year, a group which pledges to work with tribal communities to provide resources and opportunities.

All of which is well and good. Here’s the thing though. He’s owned the team for 17 years. The team has been named the Redskins for [checks Wikipedia] oh, 17 years. Why now _ only after the critics have started coming after what ESPN’s Bob Ley called the “low hanging fruit” of bashing the name _ is Snyder suddenly so down for the cause?

Not surprisingly, a large percentage of the fan base (my mother included) has joined in. And they’re not alone. A poll released last week indicated 71 percent of Americans are just fine with the nickname staying

Which makes perfect sense, except for the part where it doesn’t. Asking the casual fan _ almost all of whom are an ethnicity other than Native American _ on whether the team should keep its nickname is akin to doing a poll in the south during the 1840s and asking folks who aren’t slaves if they think slavery is cool.

Over the top? I don’t know, any more over the top than having the most popular professional franchise that represents the capital of the most powerful country in the world boasting a nickname that is the equivalent of a slur?

I understand the defensiveness. I believe some of the energetic defense of the nickname is due to a sense of “racism by association.” My mother thinks “I like the Redskins. I’m not a racist. But if you say the name is racist and I’m a fan of the team, then I’m a racist.”

First mom, you’re not a racist. Nor, I’m sure, are the hundreds of thousands of others who part with a substantial chunk of change for tickets, parking, food, the 18th version of a Robert Griffin III jersey or anything else that Snyder (who also does not appear to be a racist) has monetized to within an inch of your wallet’s life.

If you like the team, that does not mean you are a racist. If you’re not bothered by the name, that does not mean you are a racist.

You know who was a racist though, in deed if not in words? George Preston Marshall, the man who co-founded the Boston Braves in 1932 then switched the name to Redskins the following year because _ according to The Associated Press story at the time _ he didn’t want his team to be confused with Major League Baseball’s Boston Braves. The fact he had several Native Americans in uniform was immaterial.

“The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins,” the AP quoted Marshall as saying on July 5, 1933.

Marshall was a visionary marketer. He moved the franchise to Washington D.C., in 1937 and saw that football was entertainment. He created the Redskins Marching Band, who made “Hail to the Redskins” the first fight song for an NFL team. That song’s lyrics include the lines “beat’em, swamp’em touchdown let the points soar” which last I checked, appear to be pretty damn offensive. “We Are The World” it is not.

Marshall wasn’t, however, a visionary in terms of progress. Even as the number of African-American players flourished throughout the NFL in the 1950s, his team’s roster remained all white. It wasn’t until his hand was forced by the federal government _ which threatened to pull Marshall’s lease on DC Stadium _ that he reluctantly traded for Cleveland Browns star running back Bobby Mitchell. Of course, this was after Marshall drafted former Ohio State running back Ernie Davis, who declined to play for the Redskins because of Marshall’s reluctance to integrate the team.

So let’s see. Folks are backing a nickname considered a slur that was thought up by a guy who refused to sign African-American players for 15 years after it became common practice.

Yeah, that makes sense.

It’s the why that gets me. Why does the name matter? Will people stop coming to games, watching on TV or buying swag if Snyder decides to ditch Redskins for something _ anything _ less offensive.

No. In fact, he’d probably make MORE money. New name means new merchandise. It also means Snyder will still get to sell Redskins merchandise because if there’s anything the NFL loves it’s selling old jerseys as a revenue stream. People can complain all they want about the state of the economy, but I’ll start worrying only when I see folks stop shelling out money for things like this: 

When I was a kid, the NBA team in Washington was called the Bullets. In the late-1990s owner Abe Pollin _ pointing to the alarming rise in gun violence in the city _ held a contest to change the name. They came up with the Wizards. The colors went from red/white/blue to blue/gold and something else. It was an uninspired choice, but I understood the reasoning even if any sort of link between the team’s name and DC becoming the “Murder Capital of the World” for a brief time had nothing to do with each other.

There are much larger issues in the NFL _ and in life _ than the nickname. I get that. And when the Redskins play in Houston this afternoon, I’ll keep an eye on it even as I work in the press box at Heinz Field doing a job that I love, a job whose seeds were planted on that unforgettable day 31 years ago when RFK shook and the jubilation gave me a high I’ve spent three decades chasing.

But here’s the thing. The name is fixable. An easy fix at that. If even a small handful of people are offended _ and really, the number is considerably higher _ then what’s the point of keeping it around.

There was a time when it was OK to say “colored” or “Negro.” I know this because I heard those words from people in my extended family as a kid. That doesn’t mean it’s OK anymore.

Times change. And this is all so arbitrary and unnecessary. Any other name would work. Unlike college, the NFL is about the names on the back of the jersey, not the one on the front.

I don’t root for the word Redskins. I root for Riggo and RG3. For Schroeder and Santana and Coach Gibbs and (for now) Jay Gruden.

And I root for this silly nonsense to end so I can pass my love for the franchise _ and the link it provided to my father _ along to my son. I’m already fighting an uphill battle. He and his little sister will grow up surrounded by Steeler fans. And if they become one, I can deal with it.

Of course, if they opt for the Cowboys then they’re out of the will. I mean, you gotta draw the line somewhere.

Like say, a nickname whose time has come and long since gone.

Hail to the Redskins? I’ll hail when common sense prevails. Until then, may the battle for decency “fight on, fight on, till it has won.”

Then _ and only then _ will the franchise become “sons of Washington.”

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3 thoughts on “The Owner and the Onus

  1. Pingback: Roots | A Blog Called Quest

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