Washington is a city in love with the sound of its own voice. Whether you are in the Senate gallery, in a banquette at Sans Souci or watching TV in suburban Maryland, you will encounter no shortage of "seasoned political observers" more than willing to serve up pithy pronouncements on everything from the Humphrey-Hawkins bill to Yasser Arafat's bathing habits.
But for the last seven years there has been one subject Washington has enjoyed hearing itself talk about even more than politics—the city's pro football team. The Redskins have made the playoffs for five of those years and, along the way, become a local obsession. In recent autumns it would have surprised hardly anyone at a Georgetown dinner party to hear Henry Kissinger, with his mouth full of caviar canapés, discoursing about the grace of Charley Taylor. The only snag for Henry and other pundits was that they were always running out of interesting things to say about the Redskins. This embarrassing state of affairs was caused by Coach George Allen, who has created an intelligence gap by occasionally closing his practices to the press and generally keeping his own counsel.
The Washington media have leaped in to fill this information vacuum by giving nearly every warm body connected with the Redskins, short of owner Edward Bennett Williams and Trainer Bubba Tyer, his own TV or radio show. Nine Redskin players and Allen take to the airwaves each week to discuss, make excuses for—and occasionally even offer some insight into—their team.
Among the questions raised by these programs is whether they are news or entertainment. Generally, a pregame or postgame show is considered to be entertainment, and the cost of putting it on comes from the station's general programming budget. However, Allen does a weekly spot called Special Assignment that runs eight to 10 minutes as part of the WJLA-TV (ABC's Washington affiliate) Monday night news. Does that, in effect, make Allen a news commentator for WJLA? Would he withhold a news story from a reporter for a competing station to save it for WJLA? Does this smell like checkbook journalism? And what about Running Back Mike Thomas, who appears with sportscasters Jim Simpson and Nick Charles on the local NBC station, WRC-TV, during Monday night newscasts? Or Quarterback Joe Theismann, who is a regular on WJLA's AM-Washington show on Mondays?
None of the broadcasters who put these programs on the air feel there is a conflict of interest, and as Redskin PR Director Jack Fleischer says, "If the stations hired our people because they thought they were going to get something exclusive, they've been disappointed." Still, there have been troubling moments. After Washington's first game against Dallas this season, Allen led reporters at his regular Monday press conference to believe that Fullback John Riggins would require surgery for a knee injury he sustained in the game. That night, just before Allen went on the air to do Special Assignment, he was told that Riggins' leg would not be operated on after all and that he might be able to play by late November. Allen served up this "scoop" to WJLA's viewers, much to the dismay of reporters who had attended his news conference earlier in the day and had not been informed by the Redskins that Riggins' status had changed.
The Redskins' front office says that it gives its players no guidelines about what they can and cannot discuss on the air, but the athletes feel there are implicit limitations. Pete Wysocki, a member of the Redskins' special teams, does 2½-minute radio spots each day for WRC-AM and WKYS-FM. "We talk about practically anything on my show," says Wysocki. "Gay lib in the NFL, drugs, all the usual stuff. The one thing you won't hear is any second-guessing of the coach. After you've been around a few years you know what not to discuss."
Wysocki is just one of several non-household names who have shows. Linebacker Rusty Tillman does a daily report for WEEL radio in Fairfax, Va.; Kicker Mark Moseley broadcasts Monday through Friday for WOHN radio in Herndon, Va.; and Safety Ken Houston gives a live phone-in report every day on WMAL radio. Linebacker Chris Hanburger broadcasts a pregame show every Sunday and does three-minute spots on three other days, all for radio station WASH.
The station with the most comprehensive 'Skin-watch is WTOP-TV, the capital's CBS affiliate. Sonny Jurgensen, the popular former quarterback, is now a sportscaster for the station and co-hosts its 30-minute Monday night show, Redskin Sidelines. The program includes highlight films, interviews with Washington players and a question-and-answer session with Quarterback Billy Kilmer. It is the liveliest and most informative of all the 'Skins' shows, primarily because Jurgensen is not afraid to poke fun at the Redskins or to criticize Allen.
Sidelines got a healthy Nielsen rating of 11 in October, far better than another of the station's football shows, Redskin Kickoff. Kickoff is co-hosted by Tight End Jean Fugett and appears on Sunday before the CBS coverage of Redskin games. Fugett, who also works for WTOP in the off-season, is extremely articulate and can narrate highlight films with the best of them. But the show got only a five rating in October, compared to 36% for the games that followed it. "Let's face it," says Kickoff and Sidelines co-producer Rick Sharp, "people don't want to see a bunch of 250-pounders talking about last week's game. They want to see the ball in the air."