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There are two very tired recurring jokes about the Washington NFL team’s name. The first, and most worn out, involves a potato. The other is based on the implication that “Washington” is the offensive word that needs changing. As a joke, it’s not a particularly funny example of tedious LOL politics! humor.
But it’ll be even less funny when it turns out to be true.
With training camp underway in Richmond, Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been back out publicly stumping to have the team’s eventual FedEx Field replacement built in Virginia. “I view this as a Virginia team,” he said last week. Normally, we could dismiss this as standard political pandering, except that he said it on ESPN 980, which—rightly or wrongly—creates the impression that team owner Dan Snyder, who also owns the station, sanctioned McAuliffe’s sentiment being made public.
If ESPN 980 isn’t an outright outlet for the team’s message, it’s at least a bellwether for where it’s headed. Host and former player Chris Cooley’s on-air hint about an imminent location announcement— and team dissatisfaction with D.C.—seems ominous.
Setting aside the thorny question of whether a football stadium is a financial and civic asset, building a stadium in Virginia would be a terrible idea for this team.
It’s easy enough to argue that the team has had very little presence in D.C. proper since starting to play games at Maryland’s FedEx Field nearly two decades ago. The training facility is in Ashburn, Virginia, and training camp was held there too from 2003 until the move to Richmond in 2013. There’s really nothing left of the team in the District aside from the ghosts and memories at RFK.
But putting the stadium in Prince George’s County and the training facility in Loudoun County at least made the team feel like a regional entity—to get to the stadium (in Maryland) from the facility (in Virginia), you had to drive through (or, more likely, around) D.C. If the stadium winds up in Loudoun, it becomes a Virginia football team.
I lived in Ashburn for a few years, moving there from Baltimore and expecting to feel like I was part of the greater D.C. Metro area, like I had in the Maryland suburbs where I grew up. The straight shot on the Dulles Toll Road makes for a smooth, accessible commute… and hides the fact that Ashburn feels more like a suburb of Leesburg than an exurb of D.C., less analogous to Rockville or Bethesda and more like Urbana. A team that trains there and plays there will have as much relevance to the District as does White’s Ferry or the “Trump National Golf Club Washington, D.C.” in Sterling, Virginia.
Such a move also wouldn’t do much to staunch the steady creep of purple from the north, either. Much of Howard County already tilts toward the Ravens, and I’ve noticed more and more purple car flags in northern and eastern Montgomery County too.
The 1997 move from D.C. to Maryland was protected under the aegis of the team’s decade of on-field excellence. In those days, the last Super Bowl win was only five years gone, and it seemed like a given that the next one wouldn’t be too far off. If the current team fails to build on 2015’s success, re-establish itself as a genuine contender, and basically become part of the NFL conversation in a significant way, a move to Virginia will present a tempting opportunity for tired, frustrated fans to jump ship.
Usually, all of this would seem faintly ridiculous to me. I’d scoff at the old-school parochialism in an age of fantasy football and NFL Sunday Ticket, a time when proximity to a team means as little as it ever has. But it’s an Olympic year, and nothing illustrates the importance of sport to a region’s psyche quite like an entire country deciding to care about gymnastics for two solid weeks just because the athletes are wearing our flag.
That same attitude and sentiment scales to the local level. Another well-worn truism of this area is that the NFL squad, when it’s doing well, is the great leveler and unifier—across party lines and demographics. If the team retrenches and embeds itself entirely in some empty field near the Silver Line, a whole lot of that will be lost to history.
At that point, the name might as well change… just not the part of the name that we don’t print under City Paper house style.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.