Frank Deford's Diagnosis of D.C. Fans
In the past few months, I've heard the following criticism of D.C. sports fans, I don't know, maybe 17 billion times: "No one's from here! Everyone has other loyalties! People are too busy to pay attention! The Redskins is all that matters! Our fans show all the passion of a Bush Administration Sex-Ed class! Stinky sports town!"
How long have such complaints been lobbed? At least since 1979, when Frank Deford tackled the subject in a lengthy SI piece, now available in The Vault:
Even the most prominent "major league" American cities feel some need for their home teams to succeed against municipal rivals; every city has a little Sparta left in it. All but Washington: because no mere ball team is going to affect how its people feel about their city, which is now almost surely the most important one on the face of the earth. A nouveau riche burg like Dallas or L.A. needs a team to prove itself to a skeptical Establishment, just as an old, burned-over place--New York, say, or Pittsburgh--boasts of its champions all the more proudly, as if to say that the fading city still does throb and thrive. But what does the capital of the free world need its teams for?
Sure, devotion to the Redskins is widespread. They get as much attention as the government (and nearly as much as the subject of federal employee benefits), but there are only eight home games each season, which makes the commitment convenient. Besides, almost every city has had its NFL social disease sometime in the past 20 years, and the more sophisticated sports towns have long since been cured......
The capital did go spontaneously wild for about 24 seconds a year ago when the Bullets won the NBA, but just as quickly, it forgot about its first champions in 36 years--until this past season's playoffs. Certainly, no one in Washington feels shamefaced that he does not "support" a winner. Just as the city is recession-proof, so, too, is it booster-proof.
What follows are thousands of words on the city, its demographics, its history and its charms, but the theme is returned to again and again: the fans stink:
The failure of the champion Bullets--who are predominantly black--to capture Washington's hearts is also widely presumed to be on account of race. A Post survey disclosed that basketball was the second-most-popular sport in town--15.6% to football's 44.7%--but one gets the feeling that the hoops are on their way to becoming a cult sport, rather like their winter colleague, hockey.
The hockey Capitals draw from a small pool of well-educated suburban fanatics, and basketball in Washington seems to be reducing itself to the same sort of monomania--180 degrees away from the mass appeal that has been the salvation of the Redskins. The basketball fans are dilettantes, specialists....
Too, the capital has never been especially keen on college sports; the big bowls, for example, want nothing to do with the Maryland football team because they know that area fans will not travel to support it....
But never mind: to the dismay of all other athletic enterprises, nobody gets the attention the 'Skins do. In 1972, the year the team reached the Super Bowl, the Post dispatched a staff of 13 to cover the event--twice as many as covered the first moonwalk and 11 more than it took to topple a President. Both the Post and its rival daily, the Star, have excellent sports sections, but they go berserk as soon as the 'Skins suit up. Radio and TV are worse; they ignore every other sports experience, except possibly the exactas at Laurel.
Absent the precious language, this could be a complaint lobbed by any number of Washingtonpost.com readers in recent years, except instead of Frank Deford they'd be named "skinsrash63," and there would be a lot more misspellings and caps. Deford's ultimate conclusion is to create a joint Baltimore-D.C. baseball team called the Chesapeake Nationals, that would play in a mixed-use facility in Laurel.
Not having been around in 1979, I know not whether Deford's description was accurate, nor whether today's situation is much changed, but the Red/White Outs in the past three days have been not at all dilettantish, thanks be. The surest bet out of all of this is that 28 years from now, some other writer will pen a lengthy piece attempting to unpack the legacy of Washington's faulty fans.
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