We were lucky enough, when I was a kid, to have season tickets to see the football games at RFK. (In those days, tickets to see the Washington NFL team were a coveted possession.) We only had two seats, so getting to go to any game was a treat, but the best game, back before I fully followed standings or strength of opponent, was whichever one fell closest to Christmas.
It didn’t matter that, as a Jewish kid, I never believed Santa was anything other than some dude in a red velvet suit. I wanted to see how they worked him into the halftime show, and to be at the game with all the trappings of the holiday season.
The team was good in those days, which contributed to the jolly feelings, but it worked both ways: The holiday season made even good football seasons better.
I went to the home finale at FedEx Field this year. It was a chance to see high-school friends in town for the holidays, which is the only reason I made the trip. It’s the first time I’ve been to a game in a non-working (either for the team or as press), non-parenting capacity in nearly a decade, and since I got to the stadium ahead of my friends, I was able to spend some time walking the parking lots and soaking up the vibe.
The vibe, in this case, mainly consisted of people trying to give me free tickets to the game. There was an air of resignation about the whole endeavor, a feeling that these die-hard fans were going through the motions ahead of their other Christmas Eve plans—that they wouldn’t dream of missing the game, but they weren’t really looking forward to watching it, either.
This lack of enthusiasm is understandable, given the team’s frustrating, injury-ravaged season and its future of quarterback uncertainty. I’m not here to criticize that attitude in any way.
I’m also not here to criticize the play on the field, really. It started out lackluster, but eventually the team warmed up and annihilated a lesser opponent—a small but significant change from their traditional approach of playing down to the competition.
I can’t even criticize the usual things about the stadium: the remote location and the traffic to get in and out and the lines for concessions. Most of those weren’t a problem this time—one positive outcome of attendance being down.
It was other elements of the experience that left me more sad than frustrated.
Since it was the holiday game, Santa was there at halftime, gyrating along with the cheerleaders in their sexy Santa outfits. Then the team’s marching band played, another long-standing tradition.
The NFL has changed since the RFK days, and absolutely nothing about this halftime show felt like it belonged in the modern, multi-billion dollar NFL. Maybe if the team weren’t mired in a two-and-a-half-decade-long slog of mediocrity, they could sell this as a deliberate throwback. But in the current circumstance, it felt dated, tawdry, and cheap.
I’m not criticizing the cheerleaders, who were enthusiastic and professional. And I’m loath to criticize the marching band as an institution, given that the folks who play in it do so almost entirely out of love for the team and pride in their work.
But it was depressing to see how often the team aired snippets of the Super Bowl from 30 years ago, when Washington trounced the same opponent, the Denver Broncos. These clips felt like cruel, toxic nostalgia—a parent showing pictures of their underachieving now-adult kid back when he was an honors student in high school.
I’ve written before about the intersection of football and nostalgia and Star Wars, probably because, despite my best intentions, those three things comprise roughly 85% of my interests. But this year’s divisive installment in the space franchise feels instructive regarding the local football team: Its recurring theme, in story and in the metatext, is about letting the past go. Killing it, if you have to, as one character says.
This was a daring thing for a multi-billion-dollar franchise to attempt, and there has been definite blowback. It will be interesting to see if Lucasfilm has the patience to see it through. At a minimum, they tried.
The football team hasn’t. And it’s only so long that you can show old Super Bowl clips, roll out the same elements of the halftime show, and just generally put out a game day experience that feels like it hasn’t changed since the 1980s. It might still work for an eight-year-old, but this football team has already chased most of the eight-year-olds away.