Let’s start with the facts.
The Washington Redskins are stomping toward another “flaming bag filled with dog crap” of a season. One year removed from winning the NFC East, they are 3-10. Star quarterback Robert Griffin III has been benched with three games left in the season, demoted to third-string status. Coach Mike Shanahan seems to be simultaneously feuding with owner Daniel Snyder, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (his son) and anyone who looks at him cross-eyed.
This is what us sports insiders/advanced stat mavens call “a clusterfuck.”
Let’s talk about another fact: in the past year, numerous Native American and civil rights organizations have in unprecedented fashion asked the team to change its name. They have argued that “redskins” is an ugly racist slur that speaks to the darkest chapters of US history. They have pointed out that the team was named by an owner, George Preston Marshall, who was an open racist and that it is past time for the team to join the twenty-first century and change the damn name. Snyder has been belligerent in response, calling the name “a badge of honor” and refusing to meet with Native American leaders to even discuss it.
Given how terrible the team has been not just this year but over the last two decades, the question has been raised in The Washington Post about whether the team is in fact cursed. Yes, cursed. Mike Wise of the Post wrote an entire column devoted to the question. He gave a platform to Jay Winter Nightwolf, who called Wise to tell him about the curse he placed on the franchise. In 2000, Nightwolf was hosting his talk radio show on DC's Pacifica station, WPFW, speaking about the racist history of the name. A “fan”, called Nightwolf’s radio show and sang, “Hail to the Redskins” to rub it in Nightwolf’s face. The Buffalo Ridge Cherokee told Wise that in response he said on the air, “Great Spirit, you have always been the beginning of Creation and you will be the Father at the end of Creation. Your children ask that you remove the racism that plagues all of mankind. And, in particular, would you please do something for this team not to win anything of real merit until they change their name, including an NFC championship and a Super Bowl?”
How credible is this? I will not speak to curses, but in sports I do believe in karma, in vibes, in small distractions metastasizing into crippling weight on a team’s expectations. What is the weight on a team in 2013 of having a racist name? Of being asked constantly about the controversy? Of having sportswriters refuse to say it? Of it being fodder for discussion on Sunday Night Football and Meet the Press? With apologies to Langston Hughes, does it stink like rotten meat? Does it fester like a sore? Does it hang like a heavy load? Is this 3-10 season, and Mike Shanahan’s unchained id of a press conference a sign that it did in fact explode?
I do know that a turning point in the season was when the team was 3-5 and playing a poor Minnesota Vikings team. Before the game, 1,000 people protested outside the stadium chanting for the team to change the name and saying, “The ‘R’ word is no different than the ‘N’ word” and “Hey Hey Ho Ho! Little red Sambo has got to go!” Did the team know? Did it even in an infinitesimal way affect their play?
I also know that there could be no bigger curse on this team than the man who insists that that the name will never change, team owner Dan Snyder.
Dan Snyder wants to be loved by the Washington football fans. He yearns for it like a canine wanting his belly rubbed. It leads him to do things that are incredibly stupid. Overpay for future Hall of Famers past their prime-time play? You do it. Sign prize free agent and noted head case Albert Haynesworth for $100 million? You do it. Cuddle up in embarrassing fashion to whoever you think the “coolest” of your players happens to be? You do it. Threaten to sue columnists and radio broadcasters who mock you? You do it. Insist that the team name will never change no matter how many Native Americans, religious leaders, civil rights organizations, sportswriters and presidents ask? You do it.
This is not leadership. It is cowardice. It has also led to a profoundly dysfunctional franchise that has more in common with a nighttime ’80s soap opera—perhaps called Ex-Dynasty—than anything resembling an NFL team. The name is toxic. The owner is toxic. And the fish rots from the head. Has someone truly put a curse on this team? It seems hardly worth the effort.
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