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Things are pretty good for the local NFL team right now. It’s riding a four-game win streak. The most recent victory came over a division rival that was a darling of the season’s first quarter. The team is scoring points, the offensive line seems to be cohering, and the defense appears to have recovered from a rough start to the year.
Perhaps most impressively, it has continued last year’s crucial trend of minimizing off-the-field drama. After all, the most notable commentary coming out of the locker room this week focused on why the NFL is determined to legislate fun out of football, which is as harmless as locker room yapping can get. So far no one has been thrown under the bus, no one has accused the wrong people of having influence over team decisions, no idiotic promotions have overshadowed the actual games.
It appears in every way to be an ordinary football team going through a pretty good stretch, which may not sound like high praise, but for this team it most definitely is.
And yet people still seem to hate the team, much more than its relatively low profile would merit. I’m not going to claim some kind of naivete-as-narrative device about why certain people feel this way—I’m writing this in City Paper, after all—but reading comments online and listening to podcasts and the like, there seems to be a remarkably deep well of loathing, even from people who haven’t been sued by the owner and who don’t seem to care much either way about whether the team’s name is a racial slur.
Why? Enter Drew Magary, a novelist, GQ writer, columnist for Deadspin, and, not least, a professional expert on online hating. Even if you don’t know Magary’s work by name, odds are good that somewhere you’ve stumbled across one of his many excellent online “Hater’s Guides”—to sports teams and mayonnaise, large insects and children’s TV shows, and the overpriced holiday knickknacks at Williams-Sonoma. A genial crank’s brand of grumpy contempt in some ways represents the foundation of Magary’s career.
“I just think people online tend to connect if they share grievances,” Magary explains. “It works in the opposite direction too, but sometimes you feel a little less alone if you find someone who hates umbrellas as much as you do (I hate umbrellas).”
Also, sports teams (unlike umbrellas) are in many ways designed to be hated. “Sports fan hate is inherently absurd,” Magary points out. “It’s a kind of safe hate, where everything is understood as a matter of ritual (except in Alabama), and people understand that it’s not real life.”
But when Magary, who lives in the D.C. metro area, mentions the local NFL team, there seems to be a little less ritual and a little more vitriol. He chalks that up to two factors:
“Familiarity breeds contempt, obviously,” he notes. “If you live somewhere that has a team that isn’t yours, you’ll get sick of that team. But also, Dan Snyder is a miserable wretch who runs that franchise like North Korea, and the worst part is some fans (not all), blindly support all of Ashburn’s bullshit.”
That, Magary suggests, is the underlying reason why people are so happy to shred the team at any opportunity. “I think Snyder is earmarked as one of the more vile owners in sports,” he says, “so the Skins get more grief than your standard team.”
It’s the eternal catch-22 with this squad: It can change coaches and general managers, try different marketing strategies, and clean up its public relations approaches, but all you can really do with the owner is try to keep him out of the public eye—which is what the team has done. But people don’t forget, especially not after the many, many episodes that this ownership has run into, and it’s going to take more than a couple of quiet seasons before people outside the fanbase are willing to believe.
“It’s all an illusion,” Magary says. “They’re the same miserable people up top, just boring-er.”
It’s a quandary. The team has been terrible, but they were never lovable losers. If they start winning, that will inherently annoy people who don’t want to see Dan Snyder happy or successful. Mediocrity just breeds more contempt. It seems likely that there’s only one way that the team can fully change the way the average fan views it.
“Sell,” says Magary.
Which means all the haters should probably settle in for another few quality decades of animus.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.