At a World Series game last year, one fan displayed a sign reading, “Bring Football Back to DC.” That’s how bad the team has performed in recent years. Gone are the years where the waiting list for season tickets was more than 40,000. Gone are the days when Monday mornings each fall included a discussion of the team’s performance the day before. In a word, the team has become the Deadskins.
It did not have to be that way but when ownership of the team shifted from Jack Kent Cooke in 1999 to Daniel Snyder, things went South. The team has been mismanaged throughout his tenure and, not surprisingly, it has lost with remarkable consistency. In short order, one-time fans, such as this writer who grew up in the Washington suburbs, quit watching the games. The 91,000-seat stadium, built in 1997 to accommodate part of the waiting list, soon sported empty seats. The waiting list disappeared. Then Mr. Snyder, brilliant executive that he is, decreased the number of seats at FedEx field by 9,000 to reduce his embarrassment. This move hasn’t solved the problem. In 2019, the average attendance at Washington home games was only 65,488, suggesting that some fans buy the $157 tickets but no longer bother to attend. Did I hear someone say, “Dead team walking?”
While Snyder was orchestrating the destruction of a once successful team, he steadfastly ignored calls to change the team’s name. “We will never change the name of the team. As a lifelong [racial slur deleted] fan, and I think that the [racial slur deleted] fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means . . .. We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.” Incredibly, Snyder also claimed the name honors and respects Native Americans.
This week, prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement but, perhaps more importantly (to Snyder), after FedEx requested a name change, Snyder relented. After all, FedEx paid $205 million in 1999 for the naming rights to the team’s stadium. And if the team is to build a new home, FedEx sponsorship may be needed (despite FedEx CEO Smith reportedly putting his minority interest in the team up for sale). Nike also has removed all team merchandise from its online store. Snyder is not as oblivious as he has sometimes appeared. He announced he has initiated a process to change the team’s nickname.
If there is an NFL season later this year, expect Washington’s team to take the field with a new name. That’s a good thing. And hopefully, Kansas City’s team, fresh off from winning the championship, will follow suit. And about those baseball teams in Cleveland and Atlanta. . ..
Who might oppose a name change? None other than President Trump, never one to ignore a divisive issue. Here’s the Presidential Tweet: “They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness, but now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct. Indians, like Elizabeth Warren, must be very angry right now!” His view here is not new. In 2015, he said he thought “Indians” thought the name was a “positive.” Right.
As a one-time Washington fan, I doubt the name change will restore the team’s popularity. My team, if you can say I embrace one these days, is the Ravens. My memories of attending games at the old RFK stadium, however, are still with me. These include watching the team’s once-famed marching band play “Dixie” before each game. This loathsome practice offended the African American fans in the stadium, of which there were many. The practice ended in 1964 after a fan appealed directly to the team’s President to stop.
My memories include moments that were at the time magical, such as the team’s win in the 1983 NFC championship game against Dallas and a 1966 game against the Giants in which a combined total of 113 points were scored. Memories also include numerous players being carried off the field with concussions and other injuries and, of course, numerous drunks some of whom appeared to have vocabularies consisting exclusively of obscenities. When my son was young, I took him to a few games, but quit after an encounter with one such inebriated fan, a fellow with a pathological hatred of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Next year will see the demolition of the old RFK stadium, the site of most of the team’s glory days. Mr. Snyder hopes to build a new stadium on the grounds of the old one. He hopes that bringing the team “home” to DC will reignite interest in the team. Maybe he’s right. But, to get permission to build a new stadium in the city, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser says, the odious name must go. That, and of course, money, I’m afraid, are the main reason Mr. Snyder has “come around.” Sad.
I frankly don’t care if the new stadium is built, what new name is chosen, or even if the team starts to win. I will, however, welcome the “monument” to racism that the team’s name currently represents, being toppled. I also hope the Ravens trounce DC soundly next time the two teams meet.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.