On the Sport and Institution of Football: Revelations From a Redskins Game
Today, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers — ostensibly the two worst teams in the NFC — face off at FedEx Field. I have no particular attachment to either team, but then again, I wouldn’t say I went to this game as a football fan.
To me, this game was something of a pilgrimage, a journey of cultural discovery and enlightenment. As an avid football lover, I sought to better grasp how the NFL fits into American culture at a more profound level than the extravagant commercialism and questionable front office dealings. I wanted to observe the unfiltered interaction of a titanic pillar of Americana with the unrelenting supporters who give it such centrality.
Fortunately, I went to a perfect game for my purposes. In one corner were the Washington Redskins, representing the most archaic order of the NFL. To begin by stating the painfully obvious, the team is currently embroiled in a controversy that pits long-steeped tradition against a subjugated racial demographic. If that narrative isn’t an honest microcosm of the NFL’s place in society today, I can’t tell you what is. But even setting aside the fact that the Redskins are called the Redskins, they are quintessential old-school NFL. Herbert Hoover was our nation’s president when the Redskins became a team. This is what their logo looked like then.
Look familiar? The only notable change to the logo in the last 82 years is that they upped the cultural appropriation by dialing the white skin up to a deep maroon.
There’s something to be said for an organization that makes only minute changes to its brand over the course of nearly a century. That aversion to change is a palpable component of the NFL at large.
Meanwhile, in the other corner, we have the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a franchise 40 years younger and two Super Bowl championships weaker than the Redskins. The Bucs face a different problem than the Redskins: they’re a shitty football franchise and nobody cares about them. When the organization reached its high watermark in 2002, Brad Johnson was their quarterback. However, the Bucs’ problem poses just as much of a threat to the NFL as its conservatism, as the growing body of evidence indicating the long-term health risks of playing football makes real the possibility that the game will become too dangerous for parents to let their children play. The NFL needs parents to continue caring enough about football that they’ll let their kids become football players; franchises like the Buccaneers aren’t awfully helpful in that regard.
So there we have it. Two teams — both horribly unsuccessful as of late — representing the warring elements of football’s cultural meaning. Can the NFL find its way into the 21st century and begin demonstrating that it cares about the well-being of women and minority populations, but still maintain interest from its base, all while addressing the inherent physical risks of the game?
I considered the question as I arrived at the stadium, but was soon distracted by the omnipresence of the number 10. Robert Griffin III jerseys were left and right, up and down. They were donned by septuagenarian men who ostensibly believed RG3 was the second coming of Joe Theismann, brought into this world for the sole mission of restoring the greatness of the Redskins franchise. They were cherished by young children who thought that they themselves might one day grow up to be Washington’s starting quarterback. They were proudly worn by teenage girls who showed little interest in the sport itself, but knew that Robert Griffin III was more than a football player; he was a demigod, a Xerxes under center, and he would take the Redskins to an entire decade of consecutive Super Bowl championships once he stops shattering his leg every September. A middle-aged man strutted around his tailgate in a camouflage Griffin jersey that one can safely assume he literally wears while hunting. A drunk mom carefully flicked a few stray drops of Coors Light off of the consecrated #10 on her sleeve as she shepherded her sons, also wearing RG3 jerseys, into the stadium while the loudspeakers blasted Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud To Be An American.” Indeed, I have arrived.
I reach my section at 12:55, just in time to enjoy the opening ceremonies. Before the performance of the National Anthem, the PA interrupts the buzzing chatter to remind everyone that November is Native American Heritage Month. My eyes dart around my section, searching frantically for someone who is visually processing that egregious irony. Nothing. These are Redskins fans and they came here to watch the Redskins, not reflect on American Indian culture and America’s sordid legacy. Mea culpa.
After the National Anthem, I duck out to snag a beer before kickoff, because I can already tell I’m going to need it. As I stand outside waiting in line, a deafening sonic roar inundates the stadium as two F-16 jets fly over the field. I watch a man forcefully shove his $9 Bud Light in his girlfriend’s hand so he can triumphantly pump his fists into the air and scream “FUUUUUUUUUCK YEEEEESSSSSSSSS!!!!!” I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to love your country so goddamn much that you couldn’t even think of containing your emotions when you encounter a symbol of its global hegemony. Jesus, can you imagine watching Top Gun with this guy? Is there even a snowball’s chance he hasn’t watched Full Metal Jacket in the last 72 hours?
The game begins at last as Tampa Bay kicks off to the Redskins, resulting in a touchback. A few isolated yells are launched at return man Andre Roberts. “Bring it out, pussy!” On the first offensive play of the game, Tampa Bay intercepts RG3. This time, the volley of shouts and heckles is tremendous, bearing something of a rehearsed and choral quality. The onslaught is led by a heavily bearded man in the back row, a gravelly baritone virtuoso, who emitted a thunderous “REDSKINS FUCKING SUCK!” He was wearing an RG3 jersey.
The defense holds Tampa Bay to a field goal (which, evidently, is still quite an unsatisfactory outcome for the peanut gallery), and there was a brief respite to honor a military family; since this is the first home game after Veterans Day, “Salute to Service” is an integral part of the day’s scheduled programming. A video on the Jumbotron tells the story of an American soldier who was tragically injured in Iraq, but is now returned, rehabilitated, and well-assimilated. He sits on his wheelchair in the endzone, accompanied by his supportive wife. The stadium gets to its feet and applauds. Before we can even sit down, the chorus of James Brown’s “Living In America” blasts through the speakers. An audience that was expressing genuine support and respect for an American soldier has been duped into paying tribute to Rocky IV. I’m speechless.
It’s not long before RG3 throws another interception, this one returned for a touchdown, and that’s when I hear it for the first time. A name I thought would be extinct by now, a memory so bygone it feels arcane, even though its presence has been felt recently. A name much like Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope, a name whose mere mention necessitates a lengthy pause in the dialogue punctuated by dramatic violins.
Colt. Mc. Coy.
Colt! Mc! Coy!
COLT! MC! COY!
COLT! MC! COY!
COLT! MC! COY!
It’s still the first quarter of the game, mind you. But Robert Griffin III, the man once seen as the franchise savior, righteously delivered from a terrestrial heaven cruelly disguised as Waco, Texas, has overstayed his welcome. Redskins fans want McCoy, the third-string quarterback who pulled off an inconceivable upset against Dallas two weeks ago. They don’t get McCoy, and they won’t get McCoy at all today.
What they do get, however, is another interruption to honor the troops. This one recognizes the sacrifices made by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the U.S. Military. Again, I look around, desperate to see just one single person registering this incongruity, one face scrunched up in thought, one embarrassed chuckle, one fan leaning to the fan next to them and asking, “If they really want to honor Native Americans, why don’t they stop calling themselves the fucking Redskins?” And again, I’m met with no acknowledgement of the disconnect. There’s a lot of dialogue around the country about the Redskins, but from what I can gather, the only dialogue that occurs within the walls of FedEx Field is commiseration about how comically bad the team is.
Midway through the second quarter, Tampa Bay scores another field goal, putting the score up to 13-0. Morale is very low. The section leader sitting in the back row has spouted out more lines than MacBeth, but has yet to falter in his ruthless shaming of his team, aimed primarily at kicker Kai Forbath, who missed a field goal (not his last miss of the day). Washington gets the ball back, puts together a good drive, and then fumbles in Buccaneers territory. And now, altogether everyone! “SKINS FUCKING SUCK MY ASS!” But a touchdown by Roy Helu Jr. in the last minute of the first half lifts spirits, and the crowd goes into halftime outwardly optimistic about the team.
The optimism is very short-lived. Two Bucs touchdown passes to rookie wide receiver Mike Evans break the Redskins fans in a merciless fashion, leaving the score 27-7. As the fourth quarter begins, I take note of my surroundings. The stadium is already clearing out so quickly that I’m wondering if Chris Cooley jerseys are available in the parking lot on a first come, first served basis. The woman sitting in front of me is out cold on her boyfriend’s shoulder. One row back, a man angrily shouts, “Who the fuck is Tampa Bay’s quarterback? He don’t even have a name!” Three rows ahead, a man stands up to loudly celebrate the way his fantasy football match is going, met by jovial pats on the back from his buddies. To his right, there’s a Bucs fan who literally cannot believe he’s seeing his team win a road game; he’s had probably 12 beers and is hollering to nobody in particular that Mike Evans is the next Randy Moss and that Vincent Jackson is the current Randy Moss and that Josh McCown might be better than Brett Favre. The road from 1-8 to 2-8 is paved with unconscionable exaggerations.
I suppose this is where I begin profoundly reflecting on how goddamn absurd this whole experience is. Don’t get me wrong, it was a hell of a time, and I hope to return soon for the marvelous combination of Grade A people-watching, shitty beer, and Conference-USA Caliber football. But thinking about football as a cultural centerpiece, it’s a little unnerving.
First, and I don’t want to belabor the point, but it’s pretty damn hard to reconcile the fact that there’s a football team named after a racial epithet of a people that our ancestors subjugated in a brutal and inhumane manner. It’s equally hard to reconcile the fact that, eight weeks a year, tens of thousands of people — myself notwithstanding — ignore the ethical implications of the organization and pay good money for tickets and parking and watery beer to go see this team lose so we can shout at them about how terrible they are. It doesn’t compute.
I’ve tried for years to describe succinctly why I love football so much. Why I piss away 20 Sundays and nearly as many Saturdays (not to mention all the Monday and Thursday nights) to watch this sport that, in so many ways, ignites some sort of ethical dissonance. I don’t like accepting a racial slur as an immovable column of tradition. I don’t like buying into a sport that poses drastic long-term health risks for its players. I don’t like Roger Goodell. But I love football.
Football is two separate entities: a sport and an institution. The sport is magical. It is the perfect combination of boundless athleticism, complex strategy, and intense emotion. It is an absolute team sport, in which a physically weak link can be a team’s demise, while a spiritually strong link can be a team’s saving grace. It leaves a margin for flamboyant personalities, large enough for timeless interpersonal rivalries and awe-striking displays of raw emotion, but small enough to still lay consequences on players who are overly egocentric. It is truly the perfect game.
As an institution, though, football is extremely problematic. The outrageous commercialization of the game has turned the NFL into a business in which franchise owners, not players or fans, are the shareholders. Football The Institution cares too much about its storied tradition to admit that a mascot invented 30 years before the Civil Rights Act could be an antiquated token of bygone racist attitudes. Football The Institution sees the physical well-being of its players as something that needs to be addressed just enough to keep future generations playing football, not as a serious issue that calls for comprehensive reconsideration of the rules of the game.
What I realized today is that the sport and the institution of football are indeed very separable. That’s why I spent my afternoon alternating between excitedly watching the sport and struggling to understand the culture in which it’s embedded. I love the sport, but my concerns with the institution are growing increasingly troublesome, and it won’t be long before they outweigh my adoration for the sport. It’s high time for the cultural institution of football to evolve to the present day.