The Racist Redskins

There’s a debate brewing—yet again—about whether the name of Washington’s football team is racist. Of course it is, says Michael Tomasky.

Jason DeCrow/AP

When George Preston Marshall died in 1969, he left some money to his children but directed that the bulk of his estate be used to set up a foundation in his name. He attached, however, one firm condition: that the foundation, operating out of Washington, D.C., should not direct a single dollar toward “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.” Think about that. This was not 1929 or 1949. Even in 1960 such a diktat might have been, well, “understandable” in a Southern city such as Washington then was. But 1969; “in any form.”

This is the man who gave the Washington Redskins their name. He was one of the most despicable racists in the American sporting arena of the entire 20th century. He thought Redskins was funny, just as he thought the war paint and feather headdress he made the head coach wear were funny. And this is the legacy that current Redskins owner Dan Snyder wants to uphold?

You’ve been reading about this name lately. More and more people are calling for the team to change it. There is legislation in Congress, based on the fact that under trademark legislation passed in 1946, a corporate “mark” can’t be disparaging of a people or group. Snyder says he’ll change the name approximately never (“and you can put that in all caps”). Most Americans, and most Redskins fans, agree with him. But all that shows is that those Americans and fans don’t know the history. Snyder, presumably, does. He should be ashamed.

Marshall had made a fortune in the commercial laundry business when he purchased the Boston Braves football team in 1932. His second coach was a man whose mother was thought to be part Sioux. Not known to be—thought to be. And on that flimsy basis, Marshall changed the name, in this coach’s “honor” (even though Marshall fired him after two seasons), from Braves to Redskins. It seems telling that “Braves” was somehow not authentic enough for Marshall.

Telling, but not surprising. This is a man who proposed to his wife against the backdrop of a group of black performers he’d hired to croon “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginny” as he popped the question (“Massa and Missus have long since gone before me / Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore”). Who ordered the Redskins marching band to play “Dixie” right before “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to every game—up into the 1960s. And who probably instigated the banning of black athletes from the NFL from 1933 until 1946.

I say “probably” because the league’s owners at the time always kept it a deep secret, but Thomas G. Smith, who wrote a 2011 book about all this, got as close as a person could get to putting Marshall at the center of the ban. The league had blacks before 1933 only because people didn’t care much about pro football then, not nearly as much as they did about baseball. But in 1933, at someone’s instigation, the owners got together and agreed on the ban. Certainly, Marshall was the biggest racist of the bunch. (I reviewed the book here, for The New York Review of Books.)

Most famously of all, Marshall was the last owner to accept a black player—fully 15 years after the ban was lifted. And his team drafted an African-American then (in 1961) only because it was forced to by the government—the then-new stadium that we call RFK Stadium today was built on Department of Interior land, which permitted the Kennedy administration to order the lessee (the team) to adhere to federal nondiscrimination policies. In other words, Marshall wasn’t merely a standard-issue racist of the time, like H.L. Mencken or countless others. He was diseased. He seethed with hatred of nonwhite people. And “Redskins” is his handiwork. Because “Braves” wasn’t quite descriptive enough.

Now, I should note: Redskin is not the equivalent of the N word, as some are saying. The N word is in a class by itself, at least in this country, and so that comparison is self-discrediting. I saw Eleanor Holmes Norton on TV the other day make it. She should stop.

However, consider this. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “Redskin” is labeled “usually offensive.” Other words to which M-W appends that description are “kike,” “dago,” and “darky.” Let’s all imagine, for the sake of argument, that the journeyman coach Marshall wished to “honor” had had a mother of possible Jewish, Italian, or African descent. How long do you suppose the name Washington Kikes, Washington Dagoes, or Washington Darkies would have lasted?

Not long. But “Redskins” lasts only because white people don’t know it’s offensive and don’t particularly care to stop and think about how and why it might be. They don’t know that it refers to the scalps (and skulls and corpses) of Native Americans, butchered by bounty hunters and delivered by the wagon-full to collect their payments from local authorities who’d authorized the kills. This recent poll that 79 percent of Americans aren’t bothered by the team’s name doesn’t impress me. All it means is that 79 percent of Americans need a history lesson.

So, too, does a certain NFL owner. Dan Snyder is Jewish, by the way; if he can’t see the similarity between “Redskin” and “kike” or “Hebe,” then he’s got a dark spot on his soul that I sure can’t help cleanse. The sad thing is he has an opportunity to be a visionary here. He can embrace a future that is inevitable anyway and help settle some important historical accounts while doing so. He could say something like: “We all know that while George Preston Marshall did great things for this city and this franchise, his racial legacy is not something we can be proud of. The name Redskins is, alas, part of that legacy. I therefore have decided…” He could turn it into a contest, letting fans submit and vote for a new name. It could happen over two or three years, so people would have a chance to get used to it, work through the five stages of nickname grief. And I’m quite sure it has already dawned on him that he could one day be selling two different kinds of apparel.

Until that day, he and his team are a national embarrassment, an embarrassment that will only increase as time passes. Fail to the Redskins.