But Thomas lived by day across the street from the White House -- 1601 Pennsylvania Avenue, or Lafayette Square -- under a makeshift shell of umbrellas and tarps. He decorated his digs with signs that read "Wanted: Wisdom and Honesty," "Ban All Nuclear Weapons or Have a Nice Doomsday," and "Live By the Bomb, Die By the Bomb."
Thomas (his real name was William Thomas Hallenback Jr.) was a protester. And the White House, our government -- ever respectful of our First Amendment right to free speech -- allowed Thomas to protest pretty much uninhibited from the moment he first plopped down in Lafayette Square on June 3, 1981, until he was hospitalized for the last time almost 28 years later.
Good thing for Thomas he didn't choose FedEx Field in nearby Landover, Md., where the local NFL team plays, to make his stand. He quite possibly would've been tossed summarily into the nearest hoosegow, especially if he dared express displeasure with the club's ownership and management.
Indeed, the worst-run pro sports franchise in the country, if not on the planet, has now turned into a repressive regime. According to Wednesday's edition of Dan Steinberg's D.C. Sports Bog from The Washington Post, the organization is cracking down on fans so put out by the team's dismal 2-5 record -- and even more dismal outlook -- that they've taken to sporting T-shirts and carrying placards expressing their disgruntlement.
There is no other way to describe what the club's owner, Dan Snyder, and his lieutenants are doing to upset fans other than imitating a government with distaste for dissent. After all, when things were going swimmingly for this club, you could bring in all the banners and sport all the T-shirts with homespun slogans that you wished. I know. I was there. I saw them every Sunday at the old RFK Stadium. The upper deck overhang and the lower bleacher seat railings were decorated every game day with colorful and entertaining signs celebrating the team and ridiculing the opponent.
But now that there is nothing to celebrate, the new ownership group -- in the front office for 10 years now -- doesn't want to chance having the rest of the world see what a growing portion of the club's longtime loyal fans are thinking. So in recent weeks, it changed stadium regulations. As Washington's chief operating officer David Donovan told Post sports columnist Mike Wise recently on Wise's radio show on WJFK: "The banners, we do have a prohibition against signs and banners in the stadium, and we don't care what they say. We take them down. They get in the way of other people viewing the game, and people get poked in the head -- that stuff happens. We have an absolute prohibition; we don't care what they say."
I remember when the club handed out signs for fans to hold up during big games. I don't recall the club ever ordering fans to hide or take off vulgar T-shirts that always popped up during the annual visit of the Cowboys to RFK or FedEx, where the team has toiled for 13 seasons now. But things were never as insular with this team's ownership as they are now because the outlook surrounding it was never so bleak.
The right of fans to express themselves is as time-honored a part of sports as keeping score. We cheer and support our favorites and jeer our rivals. And sometimes we turn on the very folks who are supposed to bring us good feelings. The latter is part of the game, too -- at least if it isn't totally disrespectful -- and those who can't handle it shouldn't be in it.
The Washington franchise has been around since 1937. It is one of the cornerstones of the NFL, not unlike the New York Giants and Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. It is a billion-dollar franchise representing the nation's capital that makes it an example to visitors from around the world about how our sports teams are run. It is no longer setting a stellar example.
The team on the field is bungling its way through another season. The front office's approach to fixing it has turned the franchise into a butt of jokes. It has squandered draft picks and at times spent more money than any other club on personnel only to have the team produce more losses than wins. It has gone through five or six coaches (if you want to count interims) in the last decade. The Post revealed earlier this season that the team has sued longtime ticketholders who want to get out of ticket contracts they can no longer afford in a recession. The club's offensive nickname may be reviewed by the Supreme Court. Now the club is threatening free speech.
Thirty years ago, the Giants were falling apart in embarrassing fashion in large part due to a fight between co-owners Wellington Mara and his nephew, Tim. They'd just come off their sixth straight losing campaign in 1978 and it didn't appear the front office knew what it was doing. So then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle stepped in.
Rozelle mediated a truce between the Maras and had them hire a seasoned and respected football man named George Young to run their football operations. Young hired a no-nonsense coach in then-Patriots offensive coordinator Ray Perkins. Perkins assembled a staff that included Bill Parcells and a youngster named Bill Belichick. The Giants wound up making the playoffs five times in the 80s, winning the Super Bowl for the 1986 and 1990 seasons (as well as 2007), and have been a rock-solid franchise ever since.
The time is rapidly approaching where the NFL may want to revisit that piece of history as it relates to its franchise in Washington. I bet some fans would endorse it.