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Frank Deford's Diagnosis of D.C. Fans

Dilettante this. (By Preston Keres - TWP)

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 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.

By Dan Steinberg  |  April 25, 2008; 1:35 PM ET
Categories:  Media  
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So the ultimate questin of Washington, fans, and rivalries reamins... Why? What can it be atributed to? What can be done? I may make up words every now and the, but I can spel.

Posted by: sitruc | April 25, 2008 2:04 PM | Report abuse

As someone whose family's been here forever, I'd say there's a kernel of truth to it, but mostly because the population changes so significantly with the government and military. Those who stay tend to root for the home team within a generation or two. With more industries taking root here (telecom, biotech), I think there will be a lot more kids who grow up living and dying for the local teams. (Though parents' loyalties do a lot to mute the effect.)

That said, uh, Frank, "dilettante" ("dabbler, amateur") and "specialist" ("expert, professional") are antonyms. Stick an "or" in there, Sparky.

Posted by: Bill Walsh | April 25, 2008 2:04 PM | Report abuse

This is an interesting question.

I think part of it is that a lot of the more permanently-rooted Maryland residents live in the Baltimore suburbs, and are thus more likely to root for the O's and Ravens (and UMD), and thus feel less connection to the Wizards and Caps.

Personally, I grew up when there was no Baltimore football and no DC baseball, so I'm one of those split-loyalty types who root Orioles and Skins.

I do think the criticism of rootlessness for the DC suburbs is a little overblown, though. I don't know about Nor-Va, but I know plenty of people from PG and Montgomery counties in Maryland whose families have lived there for some time and quite rabidly support DC teams.

Posted by: Grant | April 25, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I know it's dated, but when the Bullets won the NBA Championship, the NBA was pretty irrelevant (I mean that in the nicest was pre-Bird, pre-Magic, pre-national TV).

We can't have all these stories about how Bird and Magic saved the NBA if the NBA wasn't in need of saving, could we?

Posted by: Kim | April 25, 2008 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Washington fans are great. Especially at throwing trash at players of the other team.

Posted by: Dan Levy | April 25, 2008 2:16 PM | Report abuse

I think that things have dramatically changed over the last decade or so. I recently graduated from college and when I returned to the area from school in Lawrence, Kansas, the majority of my friends from high school also returned. Finally, there is a growing amount of people who live in the area who actually grew up in the area. I think that is why these "Red Outs" and "White Outs" are possible and why other teams get great support, not just the Redskins. However, as I say that, I was at Nationals Park the last two nights, and half of those fans were supporting the Mets. Maybe that is because the Nats have only been here for four years.

Posted by: RC | April 25, 2008 2:27 PM | Report abuse

There are always a bunch of New York fans around here because people from New York like to go to college here, stay to build a career, and spend all their time here whining about how inferior D.C. is to New York in every possible way. But they don't move! They just stay here and complain, and continue to root for New York sports teams.

(Note: Some people from New York go to college here and then stay here and are lovely, non-whiny people. But you have to admit that there are a lot of whiners about.)

Posted by: Lindemann | April 25, 2008 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Utter garbage. It's as if people who grow up in the DC area never learn to love sports.

People shouldn't take Deford's argument's seriously. He doesn't know what he's talking about.

Posted by: Johnnie Futbol | April 25, 2008 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I don't think there is much wrong with the fans in the area outside of the coverage of those fans. There are plenty of local fans that are very knowledgeable and attend multiple events.

What do people here think of the Washington teams historically drawing from the South and having a strange territory? We all know the territory the Redskins used to cover. How different was that for other sports? I know plenty of Bullets fans in backwater southwestern Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Although south of the Mason-Dixon, DC has never been a Southern city, but it rarely felt like a Northern city. It has always been a strange mix and represented a strange mix of people.

Posted by: sitruc | April 25, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse

The old argument is that everyone here is from somewhere else, and I think that's true in certain places in the region. But there are two places it doesn't hold up at all: Southeast and Northeast. Large parts of the population in those places have been here for generations, even as the city's demographics have changed so drastically. The Redskins get some love there, but the Wizards are far less popular than you'd think. I've always wondered why the Wizards weren't more popular in the inner city, and I've never been able to figure out why so many brothers in the District are Cowboys fans. Seriously, what is the deal with that?

Posted by: bryc3 | April 25, 2008 3:53 PM | Report abuse

"People shouldn't take Deford's argument's seriously. He doesn't know what he's talking about."

I'd argue that those who have been around this area for a while don't take that argument seriously, but some of the youngn's don't know any better and the media(rarely from this area) regurgitate the argument way too often. The myths behind DC fans are as much a part of DC sports as the actual fans.

Posted by: sitruc | April 25, 2008 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Deford is pretentious pseudo intellectual who acts like he's the voice of the American sports fan.

Posted by: J. | April 25, 2008 4:03 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the comment that the coverage of the fans is a bigger problem than the fans. And also the coverage of the teams. We're constantly told that this is a "Redskins town"--and they're certainly the most popular team in town--but every other professional sports team is then treated in a "Well, no one really cares about this team but we have to fill time while the Redskins are in the offseason and we don't know much about it" manner. Even in places known for their poor fans--Atlanta, Miami--you can listen to, for instance, sports-talk radio in those towns and hear them discuss their non-football teams in a somewhat knowledgeable manner.

Posted by: Eric Fingerhut | April 25, 2008 4:31 PM | Report abuse

All the coverage of the Redskins is part of the reason why there are so many Cowboy fans in this area. I remember my mom got sick of all of the coverage and became a Cowboys fan after Doug Williams.

The Redskins are the most popular team in the region by far. Instead of offering a different product, much of the media goes with what they know works and that is Redskins coverage. They'd rather compete with each other in covering the Redskins which is a guaranteed audience than cover the other teams which is unfortunately seen as a risk. I follow the Nats, but it can be annoying that a team with no history or success in DC can get coverage even over the Wizards just because baseball is traditionally a well-followed sports. When I'm not in this area, I'm always surprised by how much the local media covers and how broad their knowledge is. For example, I was in Nashville, TN for the Olympic Qualifying in men's soccer and every station I listened to was able to talk about hockey, soccer, college football, men and women's basketball, and just about any other local and national topic at the time. Here, we're lucky if the sports' people know Oleksiy Pecherov plays for the Wizards and not the Caps.

Posted by: sitruc | April 25, 2008 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Deford nailed it. What was the avg. attendance per game for the Caps last season (heck, *this* season)? How many people live in DC and the "beltway counties"?

The Go-Nats are DC's 3rd Major League Baseball franchise in how many (er, few...) decades?? What more evidence do you need?

Posted by: duh | April 25, 2008 8:44 PM | Report abuse

I've never been able to figure out why so many brothers in the District are Cowboys fans. Seriously, what is the deal with that?

Look up who was the last NFL team to integrate (hint - the one that used to have all that Southern territory). It would have taken a few years longer if integration hadn't been made a condition to move into RFK by Congress.

DC is not a town very interested in losers. The line between "great sports town" and "suckers supporting incompetence" (see Chicago Cubs or [insert location here] football Cardinals) can be a thin one, and DC is nowhere near the line. Abe Pollin didn't seem to be trying for years (neither did MLB while they still owned the Nats), and fans in this area responded in kind. So maybe the line between "frontrunners" and "careful consumers" is a little thin too.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 25, 2008 9:30 PM | Report abuse

I think Deford is on target with his description of Bullets/Wizards fans as a cult (or "niche" in 2008 terms) following. I've been a plan holder for most of my 25 years here and have always felt like a part of an obscure hobby like model train collectors. Only when Michael Jordan was here did the Wizards become a discussion enough. Oddly enough, thats the time I felt least connected to the team.
There's just not a lot of NBA interest in my circles.

Posted by: bowiemd1 | April 26, 2008 4:07 PM | Report abuse

wizard fan but painful to watch the announcers!!! the racist one and the screamer. Isn't it time to get some young blood in and get rid of these guys kisssing each other!!! I want to enjoy my wiz game!!!!!!

Posted by: jim | April 26, 2008 4:45 PM | Report abuse

In recent years, I think a big part of the fan indifference is due to lack of success.

From 1989-2004, the Bullets/Wizards made one playoff appearance (1996-1997) and got swept by the Bulls. Hiring Eddie Jordan and Ernie Grunfeld has paid off, but it takes time to build a following back up.

The Capitals either haven't made the playoffs, or lost in the opening round, every year since making it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1997-1998.

The Nats are still new.

D.C. United have had good runs from 1996-1999 and 2004-present, but soccer will probably always be a hobbiest sport in the U.S.

Although I'm a huge Mystics fan, and it pains me greatly to say this, the Mystics are one of only two WNBA teams who have never won more than 20 games in a season. If you exclude the two new teams, Chicago and Atlanta, the Minnesota Lynx are the only team that's struggled more than the Mystics have. Having said that, I think the Mystics have the ideal leader in Alana Beard, have made excellent draft decisions since 2005, and are now poised to begin a great run. But their struggles are pretty well known to WNBA fans.

The bottom line is, give us consistent winner, and over time, Washingtonians will come around. The Wizards are well on their way, and hopefully their peers will join them.

Posted by: northernsoulfan | April 26, 2008 5:24 PM | Report abuse

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