By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
On September 2, 1984, the Miami Dolphins traveled north to the nation’s capital for an opening week showdown with the ‘Skins of Washington. It was a battle of NFL heavyweights, a must see show with an epic cast.
Miami was coached by Don Shula, had second-year QB Dan Marino behind center and the “Marks Brothers” – Mark Duper and Mark Clayton – snagging passes. It was an electric offensive attack that would see Mario throw for a then-record 48 touchdown passes and 5,084 yards in a single season and the Dolphins win the 1984 AFC Championship.
The ‘Skins, led by future Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs, were reigning NFC Champions and were one season removed from a Super Bowl title. ‘Skins quarterback Joe Theismann had won the league’s MVP award the year before. The Hogs, Washington’s famous offensive line, were two seasons into a decade of dominance. John Riggins was, with all due respect to then President Ronald Reagan, the most popular person in town. And the team’s nickname was still a source of unqualified pride. It was the best of times for D.C. football fans, an era that becomes grander with every passing year under Dan Snyder’s depressing ownership.
For the record, Miami won the game 35-17 behind Marino’s five touchdown passes. Seated in the RFK Stadium crowd that brilliant Sunday afternoon so many years ago was an eleven-year-old boy attending his first NFL game. The moment brought his heroes to life. In the days of analog T.V. and cable’s infancy, the players seemed larger and the team’s colors brighter than he could have imagined. RFK Stadium felt like home, a place where he belonged. Despite the loss, it was an experience that solidified a deep connection with the team and to NFL football, relationships that still thrive today.
The awestruck kid was me.
I am now 41-years-old and have attended many NFL games since that rookie adventure three decades ago. More importantly, I am now the father of two kids, ages 11 and eight. I want them to like NFL football and adopt my affinity for our home team. I want us to have the same wonderful Sunday afternoon experiences for the next 30 years that I’ve had with my dad for the last 30 years. I know that it is my responsibility to support that endeavor with gigantic moments that leave kids saucer-eyed and giddy. I also know that part of establishing that connection, forming that bond and sharing those unforgettable family experiences is attending games with my children – and that’s what troubles me.
My kids have never attended an NFL game and I have no intention of taking them to one anytime soon. It’s a different environment now, not one, in my opinion, for impressionable young eyes and ears. RFK Stadium wasn’t church in early 1980’s – there was plenty of indulgent tailgating and colorful language – but there wasn’t any discernable edge. You didn’t feel like the crowd was on the verge of becoming a mob at any moment. Conversely, I can’t remember the last time I went to FedEx Field, Washington’s current home, and didn’t see a physical altercation or hear vile language far beyond an isolated f-bomb released in frustration.
But words are just words. Here’s an example.
Two years ago I was in line waiting to use a portable bathroom outside of FedEx Field. It was about an hour before game time, a moment that had most parking lot dwellers lathered and jovial. I said most parking lot dwellers. As a door opened to one of the johnnies, a dude quickly filled the vacancy, leaving his girlfriend in line (what a rude dope). While waiting, she started up a casual conversation with the two guys behind her in line. When “boyfriend” emerged to find his girl chatting up another dude, the tool, assuming (incorrectly) that the other guy was hitting on his temptress, blew a gasket. With beer muscles swelled, he immediately rips in to the poor guy who he had identified as an opportunistic creep. “Boyfriend” was in this cat’s face, dressing him down, challenging his manhood and using every word not sanctioned by the FCC in all possible forms. It was…uncomfortable. And here’s an interesting tidbit. The psycho boyfriend was maybe 5’5”, 150lbs. The innocent guy he was verbally attacking with savage energy was every bit of 6’2”, 210lbs – plenty big enough to drop his overzealous assailant in seconds. I heard the guy’s friend whispering in his ear, “it’s not worth it, bro” and, to his credit, he backed down. When crazy boyfriend finally walked away, I commended the guy for his discretion. And to think, they were both ‘Skins fans! Needless to say, I’m glad neither of my kids was in tow.
I have plenty more evidence. After a ‘Skins-Ravens game, I watched a bus full of Ravens fans and a pack of ‘Skins fans in the parking lot exchange projectiles and, ah-hem, pleasantries. I witnessed a fight at a ‘Skins-Eagles game a few years ago just a section over from my seat. I’ve seen beer thrown and jerseys torn. Heated exchanges are commonplace. Bathroom heckling is routine. Those are just my data entries; every NFL fan that attends games with any regularity has their own disturbing story to share. And we all got a glimpse of how bad it can get when the horrific assault in the bathroom at Levi Stadium in San Francisco earlier this year was proliferated online.
Of course I recognize the bad apple spoils the bunch. The social deviants behind these sub-human acts are a very small percentage of an otherwise mass of humanity interested only in a good time and a brief respite from the stress of life in the real world. Regardless, I’ve arrived at this conclusion: NFL stadiums are not a place for this father to take his children…not yet anyway.
Skeptical of my instincts, I pulsed a few friends and fellow fathers of similarly aged kids to see if they too would avoid family outings to an NFL game. Their responses ranged from an emphatic “no” to a qualified “yes.” The qualifications included a series of wise strategies. Day games only. No divisional/rivalry games. Securing seats in the lower bowl. Avoiding the tailgating scene. Leaving early…particular if the game/atmosphere gets tense. Some even challenged my assumption that attending games live is a necessary childhood moment by suggesting that today’s living room experience – with HD T.V., massive screens and surround sound – is more than sufficient to sow your sprouting offspring/NFL fan.
My informal poll offered two surprises: first, that my buddies were capable of such deep thoughts and wisdom and second, that not one of them said they would take their son or daughter to an NFL game without a game plan.
I wonder if this – avoiding NFL games - is a widely held opinion among parents. I can tell you that I would have no reservations about taking my kids to a Wizards, Capitals or Nationals game. In fact, my wife and I did the latter this summer with thousands of other parents in the D.C. area (Nats Park is regularly filled with families). Perhaps that’s because I can’t remember a single fight or vulgar exchange at any of the dozens of MLB games I’ve attended in my lifetime. Think about that comparison from your average Joe parent and sports fan: I can’t remember the last time I attended an NFL game and didn’t observe some sort of altercation and, conversely, I have no recollection of ever seeing such an event at a MLB game.
Here’s something else I can confirm: there were no parental qualifiers or reservations when I attended that ‘Skins-Dolphins game in 1984. It was just a Sunday afternoon at the park. Camaraderie was prevalent. Human decency dominated. A good time was the overwhelming goal. As for today’s NFL games, my personal data and parental spider senses label them “for mature audiences only.” Perhaps I’m just more protective than my parents were. Maybe I’m even overly protective. I’ll take that criticism, because I know I need to be. The fact is life’s different now; and so, for the time being, the television experience will have to suffice…fingers crossed that my buddy who claims that it’s good enough to catch the NFL bug is right.