Unlike professional baseball, which was a whites-only affair from 1890 on, the NFL featured a smattering of black players during the 1920s and early 30s, with famed actor and civil rights leader Paul Robeson being among them. However, in 1933, the sport’s limited integration came to a halt and would not resume again until the Cleveland Browns of the new All-America Football Conference signed future Hall of Famers Marion Motley and Bill Willis in 1946. The specifics of what happened to cause that 13 year drought are still fairly murky, but what we do know points to George Preston Marshall having a major role in its development.
Once quoted as saying the Redskins would, “start signing Negroes, when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites”, Marshall made no secret of his disgust with African-Americans. Born in small town West Virginia and raised in a still segregated Washington DC, Marshall held a very southern worldview, something evidenced by his regular habit of playing “Dixie” at Redskins games, actively courting white southerners for his fan base (Washington was the de facto NFL franchise for the South until the advent of the Dallas Cowboys in 1960) and proposing to his wife by hiring black performers to sing “Carry Me Back To Old Virginny” while black women dressed in Gone With The Wind-esque costumes served them mint juleps. A virulent racist until his dying breath, Marshall went so far as to stipulate that not a single cent from the portions of his estate being left for the charitable Redskins Foundation go to“any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.”
By 1952, every team in the NFL had integrated except for the Washington Redskins and Marshall was in no hurry to complete the process. For the next decade, while black superstars like Joe Perry and Dick “Night Train” Lane were running circles around their opposition, Marshall stubbornly clung to his bigotry to the detriment of both his reputation and his team, which compiled a pathetic 69-123-8 record and failed to make the playoffs once. Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich captured the futility and imbecility of Marshall’s position in his reporting, calling out the Redskins owner as the biggest bigot in all of football and trolling him in his coverage of the team with lines like, “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”
The Redskins would finally integrate in 1962, but only after the Kennedy administration sent the team an ultimatum stating that the government would revoke the team’s 30-year lease on their stadium—which was on Federal land—unless they integrated. Marshall responded by drafting Syracuse tailback and Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, only to be rebuked by Davis, who said flatly, “I won’t play for that S.O.B.” The team was forced to trade Davis to Cleveland for another black running back, Bobby Mitchell, who only went on to retire with the 2nd most net yards from scrimmage of any player in league up until that point.
While it’s hard to deny that there is a gulf between racially discriminatory hiring practices and the retention of a culturally offensive team name, it is also equally hard to dismiss the parallels between the bigoted obstinacy and cultural myopia of George Preston Marshall and Daniel Snyder. In 50 years, I have no doubt that people will look back upon the blatant racism of the Redskins name and logo with the sort of disgust with which we view Marshall’s segregationist hiring practices today and that we will see Snyder’s proud declarations that the term Redskin represents honor, respect and pride as the same sort of hollow sham as the notion that the Confederate flag is representative of “Southern heritage” and not a nation born out of the desire to enslave a race of people for financial gain. Jeb Bush and Daniel Snyder may not find the Redskins name offensive, but posterity almost certainly will.