For a lot of guys - I make no claim to speak for women - there is a test to determine when they really begin to feel at home in a new city: the moment they start to root for the local team. In Washington, there is really only one team, the Redskins. And when you become a Redskins fan - not the phony lobbyist or big shot lawyer who buys season tickets to impress clients - Sundays in the Fall acquire new meaning, raising spirits or destroying all reason to live. On those days, it is painful to be more than 15 feet from a television set.
After moving to the nation's capital from Boston in the 1970s, with my loyalty for the Celtics and Red Sox cemented, I found myself slowly slipping into Redskin mode -- a process accelerating with every John Riggins run, with every pass by Joe Theisman, Doug Williams or Mark Rypien, and with every reception by Art Monk or Gary Clark.
Then something terrible happened in April, 1999: Dan Snyder bought the team, and there has been no relief since.
Snyder -- professional football's answer to Donald Rumsfeld -- set out to destroy the Redskins, buying the wrong coaches and players, milking every source of revenue, and submitting one of the most loyal fan bases in the nation to torture.
Most grating about Snyder's tenure is that he is piling up millions despite his gross incompetence. The team is the most profitable of the National Football League, and Snyder's take continues to grow no matter what the win loss record.
This is not the market at work, rewarding the victorious and punishing the defeated -- just the reverse.
In a delightful article titled "Patriots vs. Redskins: Who has it right, and who has it wrong" in the American Enterprise Institute's magazine, The American, economist Kevin Hassett goes to the heart of the issue:
The Washington Redskins are perhaps the leading exemplar of [the] tendency toward irrationality. Last spring, for example, the Redskins gave up key draft picks for high-priced veteran players. An especially silly trade gave the Jets three Redskins' picks: in the second and sixth rounds this year and in the second round next year. The trade left the Redskins with only one pick in the first three rounds this year.
To compound this error, the Redskins filled their roster with mediocre, high-priced veterans, dropping $35 million on safety Adam Archuleta, $32.5 million on defensive lineman Andre Carter, $31 million on wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, and $25 million on wide receiver Brandon Lloyd--none of whom has ever been in the Pro Bowl.
Of course, under capitalist theory, the money is Snyder's to waste. But it is coming out of the pocketbooks of Redskins fans for whom the team has a higher, spiritual value, if not a divine value. Tolerating the waste of fans' hard-earned cash on a bunch of losers is akin to the Catholic Church tolerating pedophilia in the priesthood.
Snyder is immune to the unsatisfied hunger of millions of Washingtonians for a team that makes the Superbowl - the almost naked lust for a team that doesn't let the ups and downs of the season end in December with a thud, but keeps hope alive into February, long enough to make it possible to get through the next six months until the process begins all over again.
I know I am not alone in my views, even though Snyder has shown great success finding new suckers to buy tickets, so I ran my concerns by a handful of colleagues. Here some results:
Jules Witcover, famed political columnist and Union City, N.J. native, who is perhaps the most intensely loyal Redskins fan in the press corps, if not in the entire metropolitan region:
Dan Snyder has probably made himself the most unpopular figure in the Washington sports world with his disregard and contempt for the fans, in his seemingly unquenchable quest to turn the Redskins franchise into an even bigger cash cow than it was when he bought the team. In addition to the inflated ticket prices, there's hardly a space in Fed Ex Field that isn't used for advertising, including the rotating signs that give him four shots at the fan's wallet, the food and drink prices, the bus shuttle costs, etc. At the same time, he has let some outstanding players, such as Antonio Pierce, go elsewhere while lavishing ludicrous contracts on has-beens like Deion Sanders and others. He has ruined the radio broadcasts of the game by switching them to his own stations with weak signals that furthermore are out of sync with the progress of the game on the field. Dumping Frank Herzog from the excellent radio team with Jurgenson and Huff, and letting an employee of the station, the arrogant and know-nothing Larry Michael, have Herzog's place was unforgivable. Finally, with some proven coaches available, he took the pathetic Steve Spurrier who ran the team like a Florida alumni reunion with a bunch of losers. He [Snyder] sits up in his luxury box in his suit and white shirt, flashing his cufflinks and in general acts like the rich kid you knew in school nobody liked. Outside of that, he's been great.
Jack Germond, Witcover's renowned co-columnist, TV pundit, raconteur and poker player extraordinaire:
The problem I have with Snyder is the common one -- that he keeps making change after change without letting us understand what's going on. One day Greg Williams is the greatest defensive coach since Lombardi, the next day he is given a bus ticket out of town. Snyder's attitude seems to be that since he owns the team, the fans are not necessarily entitled to explanations. What he fails to understand is that the Redskin franchise is essentially a public institution in this community, no matter who owns it. Peter Angelos has the same problem with the Orioles in Baltimore. So the real trouble may be -- dazzling insight here -- that both of them are short.
Jim Manley, communications mastermind first behind Edward M. Kennedy and now Harry Reid: "[I'm] not a fan at all. Ticket prices are ridiculous and parking is a pain. He has hired lousy front office staff and suffers from a Napoleon complex. But when he started charging for preseason practice, that was the final straw for me. He has been a disaster for the Redskins."
On the other side of the aisle, Ben Ginsberg, Mitt Romney strategist and legal counsel to Bush '04 and to the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, was more succinct: "They don't win. The stadium is a pain to get to and antiseptic when you do. The rest is detail."
Finally, Bob Borosage, co-chair of the Campaign for America's Future, declared: "It's the Redskins, so you've got to win. He hasn't. Too many coaches, too many high priced free agents that are a bust, too much confusion about who the Redskins are. As an owner, if you can't win with [Joe] Gibbs as your coach, then you're doing something wrong. And then he gets rid of the best defensive coach in football who was, no doubt, a tad too arrogant for Snyder to put up with. Snyder's Redskins have been mediocre and are about to get worse."
How, then, does Snyder get away with this? The best answer, for better or worse, can be found in the dismal and amoral science of economics. Hassett again:
The Redskins are not driven out of business because there is a high demand for football in Washington, and the NFL has a monopoly. A wisely run team cannot enter Washington and compete for Redskins fans.
Perhaps, then, the only choice is to move the nation's capital to another city -- say, Boston.