It's just too much.
What I am about to say, you have already sensed, whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever your particular relationship to sports might be: being a Redskins fan is brutal torture, excruciating unendurable misery disguised variously as ingrained love of sport or compulsive autumn ritual or necessary cultural interaction or (most desperately) defensible local solidarity. These are poor excuses.
I tune in because football is an incredibly lazy, stupid way of observing history as it is happening, when real news is just too stressful. Football is a real-time shared experience between millions of people, tailor made for an introvert who would rather not change out of his pajamas on the weekend. We all watch together, we stake out make-believe allegiances, we tether our credibility to blind prognostications, we talk in gritty, serious, technical terms about a meaningless game - we play act a version of the kind of passionate sober partisanship we might otherwise internalize or couch or hedge or manicure with regard to workplace policy or economic policy or social policy. We learn this as kids: in front of the television on Sundays, we say that throw was awesome! and we eyeball dad for approval. They should throw the ball to him every time! We use fanhood as kids to practice caring passionately about something, the same way we use pets to practice interpersonal responsibility and death. We are acting like adults. We all understand this: this is why we're interested in YouTube videos of tiny children losing their minds about one player or another being traded - that kid is practicing passionate fanhood, but he's still gathering the nuances. Kids use sports to act like adults, to sample passion and partisanship and responsibility and accountability without meaningful consequences.
All these years later, we are acting like kids acting like adults. Sports fanhood has not matured into something more reasonable. It has become an obsession, a compulsive consuming distraction. This will not be true of any fan base more than that of the Washington Redskins, a franchise that has been a source of heartburn and embarrassment for fans for one reason or another for the better part of two decades now. You know the whole long story. Redskins fans have no good reason to root for their team other than a depressing lack of imagination. For this we must be forgiven - this sickness is in our blood. Loyalty.
Still, it gets to be too much. The NFL understands this. As the NFL has gotten bigger and stronger and wealthier and savvier, they've found better and more profitable ways of keeping fans of the various lousy franchises engaged in the business of professional football even while the local team stinks endlessly: hyping the draft, broadcasting the offseason, expanding the primetime schedule, the Red Zone channel, NFL Sunday Ticket, a symbiotic relationship with ESPN, etc. The NFL has made itself its own big ticket item, and fans seem to be as passionate about the league and individual fantasy stars as they are about the home team. MLB needs the Yankees and Red Sox to drive viewership of national broadcasts, while the NFL continues to trot out the adorable west coast teams for primetime matchups. It doesn't matter - they've long learned we'll all tune in even with Seneca Wallace and Josh McCown under center.
The NFL makes it easy for a disgruntled and reluctant fan to stay engaged with the sport and the spectacle, and in so doing, keeps those fans just tethered to their home team enough to get roped back in at regular intervals. They FINALLY have a team of good guys or this quarterback is someone I can root for or if they'd just change their goddamn name I could go back to liking them or you know I'll probably outlive that scumbag owner after all! The NFL doesn't care who you root for, but by keeping you engaged they give you ample time and opportunity to scramble back to the home team with the flimsiest of excuses. Other fans probably don't have to wage this particular war against this particular temptation, but it's a very real and meaningful part of being a fan of DC sports.
I have been trying to not be a Redskins fans for at least five years now. I am successful during the offseason in much the same way the Daniel Snyder Redskins have always been successful in the offseason, which is to say whatever gains I seem to have made during the summer disappear immediately as soon as live action starts. This will be the season when I start rooting against the Redskins, I tell myself. I do not want to spend the fall and winter punishing myself on Sundays. This time I will not care if they win or lose. I am perhaps closer than I have ever been, but I would by lying if I said I wasn't disappointed by their poor start to the season. I watched most of their first four games and have even checked in regularly with ESPN's Sports Nation blog. It's shameful. I'm ashamed.
It's now gone well beyond just the miserable Redskins, of course. As the NFL has moved towards maximum exposure, turning home team fans into NFL fans in the doing, it has also been exposed to its audience in new and unpleasant ways. We've learned an awful lot about the physical damage done to football players, the ugliness of labor negotiations, the unscrupulousness of owners and commissioners, the psychotic single-mindedness of coaches, and the pervasive meat-headed machismo of locker room culture. The NFL is toxic. Football is poisoned. Knowing the core is rotten puts a lot of formerly embarrassing but otherwise benign-seeming NFL realities into darker context, including the gross glory-mongering and -sharing of fans, the scurrying parasitic noodling of the sports media, even the uncomfortably earnest production elements of the various telecasts. The whole thing is toxic and ugly, violent and damaging and specifically appealing over and over again to our worst tendencies, our lowest common denominator. Hell, the NFL is our lowest common denominator.
Last Sunday, totally by accident, I found myself apple-picking in western Maryland when the Redskins kicked off at home against the Chargers. I'd made a plan to spend the afternoon with my sister after trying and failing to guilt her into hanging out on Halloween. I was most of the way towards the orchard when my two conflicting Sunday plans - drinking hard cider on a farm on a gorgeous fall Sunday versus watching the Redskins further cast my childhood enthusiasm into the realm of embarrassment - met in my mind for the first time. It was far too late to cancel apple-picking, but I gave it more than a little consideration. This would have been difficult to pull off while driving in caravan along a country highway, and I abhor conflict, and so I muttered to myself and pressed onward. I caught the very, very end of the Redskins game and was sorry to have missed most of a by-God victory.
Since then, I've read this piece on boxing, this other piece on boxing, this football story, this tweet about that story, this piece about football in general, and finally this piece about the football story. A picture is coming into focus, and this is its general outline: the NFL is awful, football itself is destructive and ugly, football fans are the worst people on earth, continuing to support a thing after you've realized it's ugly and destructive and toxic is shameful, and expressing that stance without putting action behind it is hypocritical and obnoxious.