A history lesson for Dan Snyder

February 14, 2011

Dave Zirin and Zach Zill document the hypocrisy of Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

REDSKINS OWNER Dan Snyder, in the wake of his widely reviled defamation suit against the Washington City Paper, has been on a D.C. media charm offensive to tell his side of the story.

Unfortunately, "Dan Snyder" and "charm" go together like "Glenn Beck" and "sanity." He's the sort of person who comes off as both nasty and needy at the same time. Think Dina Lohan, if Dina Lohan looked like George Costanza with hair. But in one interview, with Lavar Arrington, Mike Wise and others on 106.7 The Fan, Snyder really crossed the line from "charm offensive" to racist historical whitewash.

Part of Snyder's suit against the City Paper is that a drawing of him was anti-Semitic. Mike Wise asked if this was a somewhat hypocritical given that he owns a billion-dollar team named after a racial slur.

Snyder responded, "Obviously, you have not read some of the history of the Redskins and the name of the team and what it means. What's most important is that what the Redskins are all about is the tradition of the Redskins, fighting for old D.C. victory. The terminology of the Redskins is not meant to be offensive, and to compare that is silly."

Columnist: Dave Zirin

What lies. It's like saying the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses because they liked praying and roasting marshmallows at the same time.

It's especially disgusting because this year marks a golden anniversary Snyder's team is doing their best to ignore: it's the 50th year since the team desegregated.

THE BELOVED local team was the last NFL franchise to integrate, and only did so after a rising protest movement and the Kennedy administration forced the issue. The roadblock to integration was the man who brought the team to Washington and, not at all coincidentally, bestowed the team with the name "Redskins": George Preston Marshall.

Marshall was without question a great football innovator who invented rituals like halftime shows and the Pro Bowl, and was an early popularizer of the forward pass. He was also a stone bigot.

At the time, the Redskins were the southern-most team in the NFL, and Marshall marketed his team to a white Southern audience by playing Dixie before games and saying proudly, "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites." This is why the team is called Redskins: it was a racist name from a racist owner.

Marshall was stubborn to keep the team white despite the fact that the Redskins were simply a terrible team, winning one game the previous season. This ratcheted up the pressure on Marshall who found himself facing a struggle with civil rights activists and the Kennedy administration over his racist policies.

Marshall's active bedfellows in keeping the Redskins white included the American Nazi Party and the KKK, who marched in front of the stadium. On the other side were organizations like the NAACP, the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) and JFK's Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall. It was a saga that would end with the signing of the Redskins' first Black players, Ron Hatcher and future hall-of-famer Bobby Mitchell, 15 years after the rest of the league had integrated.

Udall is historically given the lion's share of credit for forcing Marshall's hand. While he certainly deserves recognition, it's unlikely that he would have pressed as hard without the actions of civil rights activists and ordinary Black residents of D.C., who had been protesting segregation for years outside of the old Griffith Stadium.

In 1961, the Redskins moved into brand new, publicly financed D.C. Stadium (now RFK Stadium); the shiny new facility quickly became a battleground, with competing demonstrations held by segregationists and civil rights activists alike. Built with $24 million in public funds, the new stadium sat on land owned by the National Capital Parks and thus by the federal government. Udall used this leverage against Marshall, threatening in March 1961 to rescind the federal government's lease to use the stadium if the franchise owner didn't sign a black player.

Under banners reading "Keep Redskins White!" the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan paraded around the stadium in protest. But civil rights activists countered with pickets of their own, with signs reading: "People who can't play together, can't live together."

Marshall was intransigent, declaring that "no one of intelligence has ever questioned my theories on race or religion." But in a city with a new Black majority that could not even vote in a presidential elections at the time, the fight over a football team struck a chord with residents inspired by successes of the civil rights movement elsewhere, and the protests continued.

When Udall compromised and gave Marshall another season to integrate, civil rights activists took it upon themselves to make an issue of Marshall's racism wherever the team went. The local NAACP and CORE chapters picketed Marshall's home and organized a boycott of the 1961 season. Black and white civil rights activists picketed outside each and every home game that season, forcing down attendance and causing Kennedy to decline an invitation to attend the new stadium's inaugural game.

On the other side of the country, activists and union members organized a boycott of a Redskins-Rams game in Los Angeles. The Redskins exhibition games in the South and the West also became targets for protesters. Pressure mounted on league commissioner Pete Rozelle to intervene.

Marshall buckled and came up with a list of Black players that he would try to draft, headed by Syracuse's star running back Ernie Davis. Davis refused to play for Marshall, and was traded to the Cleveland Browns for the great Bobby Mitchell who finally broke the league's most stubborn color line.

Today, Snyder's ignorance--or mendacity--regarding the team's integration is a slap in the face to Bobby Mitchell and every African American player who had to deal with Marshall's stewardship.

Dan Snyder's profound insensitivity to this question is further evidence that his charm offensive will prove futile. But the "offensive" part? That bit he has down pat.

First published at TheNation.com.

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