Red­skins con­tinue to lead the league in fan alien­ation

The Washington Post Sunday - - PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL - [email protected]­post.com

One by one, Daniel Sny­der creeps into the heads, the wa­ter­cooler con­ver­sa­tions and the kitchen-ta­ble chats of Wash­ing­ton NFL fans and forces them to aban­don their love of his team be­cause they find him so con­sis­tently and un­end­ingly at odds with their core val­ues.

Ba­si­cally, Sny­der in­sults them. He spits in their faces and thinks he can get away with it, even though the mas­sive ev­i­dence of empty seats in his own shrink­ing sta­dium should wise him up.

So, one by one, they leave, sel­dom be­cause of any one de­ci­sion, but be­cause of his an­nual avalanche of ac­tions that range from the an­noy­ing to the in­fu­ri­at­ing.

Af­ter 20 years as the owner, Sny­der can’t or won’t change. So, the tra­jec­tory of his team’s pop­u­lar­ity now seems cast in stone: down, down, down, year af­ter year, with brief upticks for oc­ca­sional rays of light, such as the mi­rage of this season’s 6-3 start.

At this rate of fan alien­ation, Sny­der’s team prob­a­bly will fall be­hind the Stan­ley Cup cham­pion Cap­i­tals and Na­tion­als in lo­cal pop­u­lar­ity within a decade.

If the Wizards and United want to dream of pass­ing the Sny­der­skins, then within 20 years, aided by the NFL’s night­mare with CTE, that could hap­pen, too.

This past week, Wash­ing­ton demon­strated its self-de­struc­tive modus operandi again. Des­per­ate for any kind of tal­ent up­grade in the af­ter­math of the grue­some in­jury to quar­ter­back Alex Smith, it was the only team in the NFL that would touch Reuben Fos­ter, the trou­bled young line­backer who has been ar­rested three times this year. A few days ago, he was ac­cused of hit­ting his girl­friend.

Sny­der’s team did no se­ri­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Fos­ter’s char­ac­ter or re­cent is­sues by reach­ing out to po­lice. It claimed it talked to ex-Al­abama team­mates who now play for Wash­ing­ton, who vouched for him strongly. When asked about this, the first two (of six) for­mer Crim­son Tide play­ers said, “No one talked to me.”

Ear­lier this year, des­per­ate for a run­ning back af­ter a sea­so­nend­ing in­jury to their sec­on­dround draft pick, Sny­der’s team signed un­wanted Adrian Peter­son, who in 2014 reached a plea deal to re­solve his felony child abuse case stem­ming from him dis­ci­plin­ing his young son with a tree branch. From a foot­ball stand­point, that move helped the team. But just like dozens of il­lus­tra­tions of Sny­der’s dis­re­gard for the val­ues of many of his fans, he ig­nored any blow­back, or in the Fos­ter case, even outrage. Sny­der just grabbed a quick fix.

Peter­son, a fu­ture Hall of Famer, has ev­ery right to be em­ployed. Fos­ter has not been con­victed of any­thing. As a Wash­ing­ton coach said 15 years ago when asked about the ugly deeds of a newly ac­quired player, “He’s not in jail, is he?”

That seemed sort of funny at the time be­cause scoundrel Steve Spurrier said it. But the Ol’ Ball Coach ac­ci­den­tally de­fined the min­i­mum stan­dard for the Dan­skins: You can’t be in prison — yet. This team would claim Paul Manafort on waivers.

It takes no imag­i­na­tion to pre­dict the long-term demise of the Sny­der­skins’ fan base, only good eye­sight. Look at FedEx Field.

About 15 years ago, a for­mer GM of the Ori­oles told me, “You are watch­ing the de­struc­tion of a great fran­chise.” Now, Bal­ti­more, 47-115 last season, has lost 55 per­cent of its at­ten­dance from 20 years ago. It took many years for an aw­ful owner to bring his own team that low. The deed was done in much the same man­ner as Sny­der: with a hun­dred lit­tle horrors, not one huge malfea­sance.

De­spite re­mov­ing seats from FedEx Field, Sny­der’s team ap­pears to have the NFL’s low­est per­cent­age of oc­cu­pancy, though the team won’t re­veal the sta­dium’s ca­pac­ity. The team that fibbed for years about its in­fi­nite wait­ing list now sees its tick­ets sold on the sec­ondary market for the price of a deluxe latte. Ev­ery game has thou­sands of empty seats, and many who do trek to the Dan­geon cheer for the vis­it­ing team.

Sny­der is hardly the first busi­ness­man to live by charg­ing all-the-traf­fic-will-bear. But what’s stu­pe­fy­ing is that, even though he grew up in the D.C. area, he seems to have no in­sight into his cus­tomer base.

Whether it is his in­tran­si­gence to­ward chang­ing the team’s nickname, or his at­tack on the Wash­ing­ton City Pa­per for print­ing a list of dozens of his of­fenses to ci­vil­ity, or the back­stab­bing in his front of­fice when oust­ing GM Scot McCloughan, Sny­der’s team acts with all the tact, wis­dom and com­pas­sion of the cur­rent White House.

Sny­der’s own world view is ir­rel­e­vant. But as a busi­ness­man, he ought to know the val­ues and mores of his po­ten­tial cus­tomers. This is an ex­tremely pro­gres­sive part of the coun­try, where one could ex­pect sig­nif­i­cant reser­va­tions about stick­ing so stead­fastly to the team nickname, or giv­ing the ball to a run­ning back who has faced child abuse charges, or sign­ing a line­backer just days af­ter he was ac­cused of hit­ting a woman. Maybe you could get away with some, or all, of those things in a dif­fer­ent market. Here, any one of them could give fans pause. And one too many mis­giv­ings can lead to con­tempt.

Whether Sny­der is de­fy­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal rules by cut­ting down trees on his prop­erty to im­prove his view or su­ing a fi­nan­cially strug­gling el­derly woman for not liv­ing up to her mul­ti­year pledge to buy season tick­ets, the owner seems to have no idea where he lives or the widely held views of his cus­tomers.

Iron­i­cally, Sny­der’s team plays in one of the few parts of the coun­try where he prob­a­bly could have Peter­son and Colin Kaeper­nick in the same back­field and not catch too much flak. Net­net, giv­ing Kaeper­nick a shot in 2019, if he still wants it, prob­a­bly would pull more fans back to the team than it would lose. To back such ideas in Wash­ing­ton isn’t brave. It’s al­most cheap ap­plause.

Last week, I got an email from a reader that in­cluded the fol­low­ing: “How can I con­tinue sup­port­ing the team when the lead­er­ship views the world so dif­fer­ently than me? . . . I am so con­flicted.”

This is how you lose ’em, Dan: one at a time.

Sny­der and his en­abler-inchief, team Pres­i­dent Bruce Allen, think that this Fos­ter flap will blow over. They’re right: Most con­tro­ver­sies re­cede. But that misses the big­ger prob­lem. This team, year af­ter year, finds new ways to kill the enor­mous love it in­her­ited from pre­vi­ous, far bet­ter, stew­ards of the team. Sny­der Syn­drome is pro­gres­sive.

In ac­count­ing, many busi­nesses are sold for more than the value of their tan­gi­ble as­sets. That ex­cess in­tan­gi­ble value is called “good­will.” When Sny­der took over the team, that good­will — much of it re­sid­ing in our hearts — was colos­sal. Now, ev­ery year, that good­will is im­paired.

Who knew that a re­la­tion­ship be­tween a town and a team, be­gun 81 years ago, might some­day be so deeply im­paired by just one man who, while born and raised here, re­flects the val­ues and be­hav­ior of so few of us? For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/boswell.

Thomas Boswell

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