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The Steele Drum


September 28, 2009 12:16 PM

You Can't Fire The Owner


For a sports fan, nothing is more agonizing than wanting to fire not the coach, not the GM, not the quarterback or cleanup hitter or point guard … but the owner.

Nothing makes you feel more powerless, more impotent, more feeble in your rage.

Consider Sunday’s Lions-Redskins game in Detroit. In the wake of the worst loss in most ‘Skins fans’ lifetime, there’s the usual venting about firing novice head coach Jim Zorn and former first-round quarterback Jason Campbell and the defensive coordinator and the overpaid defensive tackle and all the usual suspects. But the common theme aims blame straight at the top, at owner Dan Snyder, who has done a masterful job of alienating one of pro sports’ most rabid supporters within just a decade.

Detroit fans know their pain, times four, because under William Clay Ford their dreams have been crushed for more than 40 years. They’ve tried everything, from staying home to staging protest marches to registering every possible domain-name combination of “fire,’’ “Matt’’ and “Millen.’’ But the true target of their ire, Ford, remains solidly in place, and was spotted celebrating the end of a losing streak that had spanned three seasons as if the Lions had won its first-ever Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, back in D.C., ‘Skins fan took an immediate beating from gloating fans of the Ravens, going to 3-0 just up the road in Baltimore at the same time the ‘Skins were being humiliated. Lost in the mocking was the fact that Baltimore fans had to have known exactly what their suffering neighbors were feeling. Even if they were too young to remember Bob Irsay (as if anyone in town would ever let them forget), they were living amidst the nightmare of the Peter Angelos regime with the Orioles.

Not only are ‘Skins and Orioles fan bases practically separated at birth – the demolition of decades of success for a storied franchise – they are largely the exact same people. Thank another despised owner, Bob Short, for abandoned D.C. baseball fans adopting the Orioles for three decades.

The list is endless, even if circumstances are so dissimilar. The Yankees and Clippers are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of success, tradition and cache, but their owners (George Steinbrenner, Donald Sterling) tend to send their respective fans into vein-throbbing tirades. The Bidwill family has managed to become the bane of the existence of Cardinals football fans in three cities over the decades: Chicago, St. Louis and Phoenix.

Any fans who have been through this, even if it was long ago, likely still feel the sting. The A’s (Charlie Finley). The Reds (Marge Schott). The Bengals (Mike Brown). The Oakland-L.A.-Oakland Raiders (Al Davis). The corporations make the feeling even worse (the Cubs and Tribune, the Knicks and Cablevision), and the coincidental collaborations worse still (the group that ran the New Jersey Nets for a while, dubbed “The Secaucus Seven’’).

What they all had in common was the feeling of helplessness they inspired in their fan bases. The only thing more pointless to yell than “Fire the owner!’’ is “Sell the team!’’

They’re untouchable. They’re made men (and women). They answer to no one. On the rarest of occasions, they answer to their commissioners – who, of course, are employees of those same owners. If they ever sell the team, they sell it when they’re good and ready, and they’re never good and ready when their paying customers are clamoring for it.

Eventually, the cry goes up, “Stop giving him your money! Hit him where it hurts!’’ Detroit fans, however, stopped giving Ford their money years ago; Sunday’s game was the lowest-attended Lions game in 20 years, and it was blacked out locally. Yet Ford still runs things, because owning an NFL team works well for him. The same goes for Angelos with the gem that is Camden Yards, to no effect on his ultimate power. Raiders games are televised slightly less than Carrot Top film festivals. As for Sterling, life is never sweeter than when he hosts the Lakers in the building they share, because it’s a guaranteed purple-and-gold sellout.

Don’t expect Snyder to be eating government cheese any time soon, either, because the groundswell of anger doesn’t guarantee that Redskins games will stop selling out before the end of the next decade, much less this season.

With Snyder and his (mostly) brethren, his team can lose. His fans can lose. His image can lose. But he’ll still win.
(FOX Network screen shot from washingtonpost.com)

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