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The benching of Robert Griffin III was the most important disaster that the local football team brought on themselves in the run-up to the new NFL season. It was also the most ordinary, which speaks to the byzantine disasters that this club experiences.
For most organizations, demoting the quarterback—or any player, really—who cost you three first-round draft choices and a second-round draft choice would be as bad as an offseason gets. But Washington views it as an amuse-bouche of catastrophe, a little something to whet your appetite for the GM’s wife accusing an ESPN reporter of trading blowjobs for scoops, or the demoted QB taking to social media to “Like” posts slagging off the team and ownership.
But those more baroque comedies just embarrass the fanbase. They don’t cut as deeply as the Griffin replacement does.
Griffin’s benching is deeply significant for a lot of reasons; at least two excellent essays have been written on the racial angle alone (by Clinton Yates in the Washington Post and Greg Howard at Deadspin). What I’m thinking of, though, is something less cultural and more fundamental to the very concept of fandom.
There’s a thought experiment that goes by a few names—I learned about it as the Ship of Theseus, and later heard a version about George Washington’s axe—that addresses a very simple concept: How much of something can you replace and still have it be that thing?
The axe is easier to describe: If you replace the blade and then replace the handle, do you still have the same axe? The ship is the more accurate analogy to a football team—lots more moving parts, all of varying degrees of significance to the operation of the whole. But if a ship sets sail, and over the course of its voyage has its mast replaced, and its keel, and its planks, one by one… at what point do you say it’s a totally different ship that’s come back to port?
That’s what it’s like to be a sports fan over time. The uniforms tend to be really long-lasting, but it’s just one plank.
Tom Boswell touched on some of this in a recent column in the Post, but he turns fan misery into an opportunity for hope, and sports fandom into a generally positive thing. I think that ship has sailed, and probably been rebuilt a dozen times over.
When people write about the graying of Pigskins fans, and about the entire generation-plus that’s never even seen the team be respectable, the real concern should maybe be that even the aging generation is finding it easier and easier to disconnect.
Old people—even older than me, I mean—will always fall back on the same things when they look back at the good ol’ days: the Hogs and John Riggins and Joe Gibbs (the first time around) and Bobby Beathard and Jack Kent Cooke and RFK and so on and so forth until it’s time for an episode of Murder, She Wrote and the early bird special in the dining room. The Griffin news fuels this phenomenon.
Nostalgia is like any other drug: The more you indulge, the less potent it gets. If it’s your only source of sustenance, you’re going to wind up fading away eventually. When the only way to get people happy about your football team is to literally reconstruct a facsimile of a 50-year-old building, you’ve overindulged.
Flashbacks to Riggo and Rypien have exhausted their ability to inspire, and even the memory of the late Sean Taylor is rapidly turning sepia-toned and historical.
The only hope for this franchise’s continued relevance to its fans is that they establish some new, enduring versions of some of the major parts, and soon.
Griffin should’ve been one of those. He was one of those, for one crystalline season. But by making him fungible, just another warped board to be replaced, the team takes another step away from its days as a successful vessel and toward its current identity as a floating funhouse built with cheap, crappy boards.
(This whole ponderous metaphor is why the team’s name is so important to people, of course, and especially to Daniel Snyder. There’s the very real possibility that that’s the answer to the RG Theseus Paradox, the final change when the team has turned entirely into something new, completely divorced from its past. Which, of course, is also another terrific reason to go ahead and make a change. Leaving aside the question of insensitivity, wouldn’t it be nice not to be associated with decades of ineptitude and failure?)
The social media shenanigans and PR follies are slapstick comedy. The RG3 benching is a very real reminder that gravity always wins and you are going to die someday, having spent years of your life trying to care about something that actually ceased to exist years ago.
Unless the only local teams you root for are the Kastles and D.C. United, of course. Then you’re fine.
Follow Terl on Twitter @matt_terl.
Photo by Keith Allison/Flickr Creative Commons