Half a lifetime ago, I was a sports columnist for an upstart newspaper in Washington, D.C. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Tip O’Neill knew how to cut a deal on Capitol Hill, the Evil Empire was in retreat and all was right with the world.
All was right with the nation’s capital, too, because John Riggins was lining up behind Joe Theismann and the Hogs, and a kid writer from Tampa learned fast he’d never disappoint readers if he wove in a Washington Redskins angle, no matter what the season, no matter how far-fetched.
Hockey team in the NHL playoffs? How might Stanley Cup fever help lure a free agent safety? Basketball team famous for “Bruise Brothers” Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland? Sure they’re tough, but could they crack the Redskins’ depth chart? And so on.
That’s the hold Redskins have on that town, an enduring fascination only partly accounted for by their membership in the National Football League. The balance is atmosphere wrapped in lore inside history.
Change the name, the presumption goes, and the package unravels. Slingin’ Sammy Baugh. The Over-the-Hill Gang. The Fun Bunch. The Diesel. Ex-Buccaneer Doug Williams, Super Bowl MVP. Who’d they play for? The team that dare not speak its name.
Small wonder a cadre of former players, including Theismann and former placekicker Mark Moseley, has lined up with team owner Dan Snyder in defiance of the renaming movement. Appeals to evolving sensibilities amount to attacks on their identities.
Stipulated: Professional teams sometimes change names, usually for reasons involving marketing or moving vans, or both, but the constant in each is that they were achieved voluntarily. Owners figured there was more to be gained in jettisoning their legacies. And even if old-line fans resent the switch, over time resistance dissolves into acceptance.
Well. Anyone who has spent an autumn inside the Capital Beltway, who has attended a Redskins home game or has driven empty streets on a football Sunday knows the truth of this: Application of the Nike exhortation — just do it — won’t trigger fading memories among the Redskins’ faithful. Their minds are titanium traps.
This does not mean attempts to alter Snyder’s thinking lack merit.
As an old-school conservative, I’m a steadfast believer in the power of shame to create healthy social change. In fact, we haven’t done America any favors by withholding judgment on behaviors that are demonstrably self-destructive. We’d be well down the road to national redemption if we put half as much effort into discouraging unwed motherhood, chronic joblessness, toking up, incurring debt, irresponsible firearms management and red-light running as has been invested in deploring the name of some NFL team.
If NFL announcers choose not to say “Redskins,” dandy. If pundits poke defenders for blaming “all the political-correct idiots in America” — take a bow, Mike Ditka — well, fine. And if the California Assembly approves a referendum demanding a name change ... OK, that’s just goofy, even by California standards.
Understand, though, that no small part of the equity included in Snyder’s purchase of the team — he paid $800 million in 1999 — was the Redskins name and all it entailed, right down to the fight song. Forcing a change would amount to a taking, and the I-have-a-right-not-to-be-offended argument isn’t sufficient to tip that scale.
“Redskins” was a thing of legal, quantifiable value when Snyder took possession.
You want him to change? Be prepared to stroke a very, very large check.