by Nic Rowan

Last summer, I became determined to steal the old Redskins sign that still hangs over the I-295 exit for R.F.K. Memorial Stadium. It is barely visible beneath another metal plate advertising D.C. United, a soccer team that also no longer plays in the stadium. Since R.F.K. is scheduled for demolition this year, I thought there would be no harm in the theft. I enlisted the help of a friend, and our wives reluctantly agreed to bail us out if anything went awry.

But as often happens, we talked ourselves out of the plan. One night in June I stopped my car on the overpass from which the sign hangs. I peered over the edge at the traffic screaming down the highway below. I looked up at the sign, which jutted just a little too far out from the bridge for my comfort. I am not a limber man; my resolve softened. 

It was probably for the best that I left the sign alone. It is, as far as I know, the last public manifestation of the Redskins name and logo in existence. And it could hang over I-295 for many years after R.F.K. is gone, and—who knows?—perhaps it’ll even outlive The Washington Commanders. I wouldn’t be surprised. It already outlasted The Washington Football Team.

I can’t overstate how traumatic these two name changes were for lifelong fans. The first robbed us of our patrimony. The second replaced it with something clearly cobbled together in a suburban boardroom. It is a compromise name and somehow sounds even more corporate than its short-lived predecessor. No one honestly claims to like it, on the field or off. And the branding is an embarrassment: the new tagline, Take Command, sounds like the refrain of a Tom Lehrer song.  

It’s easy to blame all this on the team’s owner, Dan Snyder. After all, the turmoil of the last two years (and the simmering discontent of the past twenty) are the result of his indiscretions. My brother has a theory that the Redskins actually ceased to exist in 1999 when Snyder bought the team from the estate of Jack Kent Cooke. Since then, he says, it’s essentially been an expansion team, à la the Cleveland Browns. The new name is actually a favor to the Redskins’s legacy. That was a great team, and it’s more respectful to retire its name. 

His is a comforting theory, but it’s not right. Snyder loved the old team to excess and even to death. He was a bastard, but everyone knew that he cared about the Redskins in his own way. A few years ago, a Domino’s driver claimed that he showed up to Synder’s door in the Maryland suburbs with five pizzas. Snyder answered, and, seeing the ’Skins sticker on the driver’s car, asked if he was a fan.

“Hell yeah,” the driver said. “Hail to the Redskins.”

Snyder chuckled, and told him to hang around for a couple minutes. He went into his office, and when he returned, he handed the driver a thousand dollars in cash. “For the true fan,” Snyder said.

This was how Synder handled almost everything related to the team. And, incidentally, this cavalier attitude wrapped him up in the team’s ongoing cheerleader scandal which ultimately meant the end of his control over the team and the Redskins name. Snyder was decadent and encouraged decadence. That’s part of why he clung to the old name for so long. He meant no harm to Native Americans—and likely no honor either. I imagine that it was simply thrilling for him to lounge amid the roar of a full stadium chanting, “Fight for old D.C.!”  

And, anyway, much of Snyder’s decadence was not his own. He inherited a mess from Cooke, who, only a year before his death, moved the ’Skins out of R.F.K. to a field practically in Baltimore. His reasons were simple: R.F.K. was old, small, and under the federal government’s thumb. The new stadium had luxury boxes, ample parking, and a massive amount of seating. But there was a tradeoff: R.F.K.’s size forced intense fan participation. Its drafty locker rooms and dirt field intimidated visiting teams. It made the Redskins difficult to beat at home. The new field, on the other hand, only offered an array of bland comforts—and lulled the team and fans into complacency.  

It was then that the Redskins truly lost its way. The team was no longer fighting for the city, but to maintain the ease of suburban living. And when its very identity was called into question—a concern primarily of suburbanites, not city dwellers—it found itself fighting for nothing at all. This is a point that Mayor Muriel Bowser has been making for years. If the team wants to “return to winning,” she said earlier this week, it should return to its hometown.

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