May 5, 2010

A Word on Karl Swanson

Few men I have met support the old adage "I would rather be respected than liked" better than Karl Swanson.

The Washington Redskins long-time Senior Vice President of Public Relations and owner Daniel Snyder's top lieutenant at Redskins Park, Swanson stepped down from his position this week.

Much has been written about Swanson over the years, precious little of it flattering. On a scale of 1 to 10 on the Liked Scale, I think it's safe to say Karl Swanson would barely move the needle.  What I find amusing about that is, in the privacy of his own mind, I think that might just please him.

Karl doesn't do maudlin so I wouldn't go there even if I thought it appropriate. But I do think he might appreciate this little vignette, as recalled through the eyes of someone who was paying attention ...

The initial meeting between internet fan site Extremeskins ("ES") and the Washington Redskins happened to fall on the day the Redskins' 2005 regular season schedule was announced.

I was one of four ES representatives on hand that day, and if memory serves, there were somewhere in the neighborhood of ten Redskins reps. 

Three of us ES types were at the big conference table (the fourth opted for an easy chair off to one side—that's how he rolls), along with three or four team Suits and a couple of intern types.

Arrayed around the room, standing against the walls and in front of the big picture windows overlooking the practice field, were another half-dozen or so team reps, wearing everything from $2500 suits to $25 polos.

And against one wall, by himself, in business casual and comfortably ensconsed in an easy chair, was Karl Swanson. I'm pretty sure he had an unlit cigar in his hand whole time, but that could just be memory filling in the blanks with what the minds' eye says should have been there.

Karl didn't have much to say that day. Which was understandable, given it was he who brokered the meeting and got that unlikely assemblage in the room in the first place. If the merger was going to work, the fanboys and the Suits were going to have to be able to find common ground.  Only so much Swanson could do at that point, and I had the impression he was simply sizing up and assessing the interaction between the message board geeks and the professional football franchise.

Or I suppose he could have just been bored out of his mind ...

At any rate ... about half an hour into the meeting, Swanson's cell phone rang. One of those pregnant moments we all know so well—oh [stuff], someone forgot to turn off their cell.  How embarrassing, annoying, unfortunate, uncouth, etc.

Except it wasn't.

Swanson answered calmly and listened as someone on the other end of the line started talking. Everyone in the room—marketing heads, public relations reps, various unidentified assistants and of course us four ES types—stopped mid-sentence and turned to look at him.

After a few seconds, he raised his chin over the phone and said, to the room in general, "Schedule's out."

He took out a pen and something to write on, and started jotting it down. I am not sure how long he was on the phone; it was probably less than a minute. He didn't look at anyone, just gazed into the distance or down at his notes. 

You know how Wilford Brimley owned the rooom at the end of Absence of Malice? Well, it was kind of like that. Swanson was in charge, owned the room ... and didn't have to say a word. Now, had the call been an irritated spouse with the grocery list he was supposed to pick up on his way home, the effect would have been different. I'm not saying it was all about the man.

But as it was, we sat there, this room full of alpha and alpha-type wannabes, in expectant silence. We had many different perspectives and agendas, to be sure, but the outward manifestation was the same ... kids on Christmas morning waiting for Dad to finally light the tree, find "his" chair, take a swig of coffee and give the word.

"Okay kids. Go for it."

When he hung up, without preface, he simply read the schedule through. He was unhurried, deliberate but not worried about waiting to be sure everyone was getting it all ... to the scribbling sounds of pencils on paper from the assistants in the room.

I do remember thinking it was pretty damn cool, as a lifelong fan of the Redskins and the NFL, to be a in the room getting "the word" literally as it came into the Park. But over the years, the two things that have stuck with me are these:

1) the fact that everyone in the room—not just the fans, but the Suits and pros and everyone else—was unselfconsciously dialed into the Reading of The Schedule, and

2) the unaffected, understated confidence of Karl Swanson ... and the feeling it gave at least this one fan that, as long as he was on our side, we would have our shot at this crazy thing.

For that, Karl earned my appreciation and admiration. Whatever his motivations (which many will say they know, but few if any do), he gave a group of fans the unprecedented experience of a lifetime, and got little in return but the merciless scorn of a great percentage of the fan base he was effectively reaching out to.

On a personal level, though he had no real reason to be, he was always gracious and patient with me. When I asked straight questions, I got straight answers. And when he couldn't answer, he said so and didn't insult my intelligence with doubletalk.

So for what it is worth, Karl, please accept this quick public nod of acknowledgment. Much respect, gratitude, and unreserved best wishes to you and yours for a long and healthy future.



murf said...

Nicely done, Mark.

Lizkauai said...

Great read on a bit of history. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

The day the fans sold out. Great story.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Yeah, what did we think this was, America or something?

The Burgundy Ghost said...

To the Anonymous poster:
As a member and frequent poster over at ES at the time I would like to say that the selling out notion that you are posing at that time was frankly BS.

Yes, there was some deep concerns by the posters and the fact that ES was going to lose some things in the merger (Bang cartoons, the notorious Daily Babe thread etc.....)didn't go over to with with some (myself included).

That said, ES was embarking on a chance to break the barrier between fandom and franchise. Fans (yes, just b/c Mark is a good writer and a major figure behind the likes of BGO and ES doesn't make him any less a fanatic like you or I) were getting behind the scenes. Getting opportunities to interview players and to go places where only the team itself or the media could go.

If anything ES became it's own media outlet with fans doing team updates and reports that were better than some of the stuff you were getting from legitimate media sources. Much like bloggers and other internet forums, the "fan reporter" was paving a new way in how sports news was being sent to the masses.

Too bad the resources were few and far between with the site and the Redskins didn't fully know what to do with it or ES could have been a true gem as a team owned/fan operated site.

Oh well, then there would have never been a BGO........

Radu Prisacaru – UK Internet Marketer & Web Developer said...

A round of applause for your article post. Thanks Again. Keep writing.