When Steve Buckhantz saw Bob Sweeney before Tuesday night’s Sneakerball, the signature annual event of the Greater Washington Sports Alliance, he said, “Did you hear about Mitchell and Portis today on 980?”
Sweeney, the president of the alliance, said he heard about the dustup between Brian Mitchell and Redskins running back Clinton Portis, and he did so with a smile because he knew his Sneakerball event had just gotten a little more juice.
Brian Mitchell was about to be inducted into the alliance’s Hall of Champions that evening. And Clinton Portis was scheduled to be a guest, according to Sneakerball officials.
As guests arrived at the National Building Museum, word spread quickly about the confrontation between Mitchell, the former Redskins star return man, and Portis on the “John Thompson Show” a few hours earlier on ESPN 980. It was the hot topic of conversation.
When Buckhantz introduced Mitchell to the crowd, he referred to the war of words that were exchanged on the airwaves and said, “Suffice to say that Brian Mitchell and Clinton Portis won’t be picking out furniture together anytime soon.”
And Mitchell himself, in his acceptance speech, took on the controversy in his typical head-on style. He thanked Thompson for his calming influence and said, “Today I almost went back to my football days.”
If it would have been on the football field, it would have been a heck of a fight.
It started when Portis, a regular weekly guest on Thompson’s show, called out Mitchell for his criticism of him, stemming in particular from an article in The Washington Post last week in which Portis made comments about wishing he could play for one week for a team with the best offensive line and the best scheme.
So in a week that should be a celebration of a good win and a glimmer of hope for the future, Portis, as he did following the loss against the Giants the week before, turned it into the “All-About-Clinton Show.”
“We got some haters, and there’s one on this show,” Portis said on the air. “He’s so caught up in whatever I do and being negative about it. Man, I really want to know what’s going on. … There’s a man on your show who can’t keep my name out of his mouth. It’s always the negativity.”
It went on from there to escalate into implied threats of violence from both sides. Mitchell said the next time he saw Portis, “I’ll step to you,” and Portis responded with, “I’m a grown man. You’re a grown man. … All your comments over the years, bro, they’re really starting to add up.”
Portis later said he felt that if he had approached Mitchell in person to confront him on his criticisms, it would have resulted in a fight.
This is a dangerous game Portis is playing. If this somehow did deteriorate into a physical showdown, Mitchell is no one to mess with. The story is still part of Redskins lore: As a rookie, Mitchell took on defensive tackle Jumpy Geathers. Geathers was 6-foot-7 and 290 pounds of pure strength.
There have been debates since over the outcome, but this was the version Mitchell told me in my Redskins oral history book, “Hail Victory”:
“I held my own,” Mitchell said. “He got stitches. I didn’t. There were some punches thrown, and he ended up with a gash under his eye. It made me look like a maniac.”
This is uncharted territory, for the most part, between an athlete and a media figure. Players are used to either the ex-jock who won’t cross the thin burgundy line, in this case, and criticize a player or the whimpering coward reporter like myself, who will mumble and look down at the floor for the best place to land when intimidated.
Mitchell is neither. He is also right.
Portis’ comments in the article were self-centered at a time when his team needed to pull together. His comments on Thompson’s show again exposed his self-absorption at a time when his team should be building on Sunday’s 29-24 win over New Orleans. And Portis’ practice habits are considered a joke among some of his teammates. These were all legitimate criticisms of the highest paid player on the team.
The bigger picture here, though, is the dynamic among Portis, coach Jim Zorn and owner Dan Snyder. Zorn tried to downplay Portis’ initial comments, but it is clear based on the last two weeks that the coach has little control or influence over his star back, who may feel empowered by his new guaranteed money and relationship with the owner.
Before he went on stage for his induction, Mitchell calmly talked about the confrontation and spoke of the bottom line in all of this.
“If you want to be a leader of a football team, you practice, you play, you don’t complain,” he said. “A lot of things he says resonate me, not team, and that is the problem with me.”
Mitchell might have said this to Portis on Tuesday night if he had the opportunity. But Portis never showed.