We are so hungry for a team that will pull our region together — like in the old days — that we will not even let the football season end. But it will never, ever happen again until we get rid of that name.
On Thursday, about 52 years after Bobby Mitchell broke the team’s color barrier, a symposium on the use of racist names in sports was held at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall. Think about it: A national museum honoring native peoples in a city whose professional football team name slurs native peoples.
The Redskins team that generated this affection is gone. It was an anomaly — a stretch of seasons between coaches George Allen and Joe Gibbs. What came before Allen was a disgrace; what came after Gibbs reflected a change so profound that the team identity vanished almost overnight. Dan Snyder is no Jack Kent Cooke, FedEx Field no RFK Stadium.
The name itself is a fluke that would have been changed long ago had it not slipped in under the radar of fierce battles to racially integrate the team. The protests of Native Americans were simply overshadowed by confrontations between civil rights activists and groups such as the American Nazi Party, which marched around what is now RFK Stadium in 1961 chanting: “Keep Redskins white!”
George Marshall became the last team owner to hire blacks. Mitchell arrived in 1962. More soon followed, and victories on the field began to pile up. It was vindication for black athletes, who had to put up with claims that they weren’t smart enough to play the game alongside whites. In a bitter irony, a racist team name became linked to one of professional football’s most hard-fought civil rights victories — a caricatured Indian head as a symbol of both interracial triumph on the field and newfound racial harmony in the stands.
Suddenly, everybody but Native Americans wanted to keep the name, lest we forget the lessons of that struggle for inclusiveness. By keeping the name, however, we showed that we hadn’t learned a thing.
The team’s rise to greatness started only after Marshall made changes similar to the one that must be made now. He had to change the lyrics of the fight song from “fight for Old Dixie” to “fight for Old D.C.” And, if he wanted to play at the stadium built on federal land, later named RFK, he had to give up at least some of his segregationist ways and hire black players.
Marshall had intended to market his team primarily to Confederate sympathizers. He fought tooth and nail against bringing in black players. And he died in 1969 still racist to the bone.
Author Thomas G. Smith, in his book “Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins,” notes that Marshall’s will expressly forbids any money from his estate going toward “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.”
From that sick mind sprang that offensive team name.
Of course, we don’t mean to offend anybody by using it. The pride we have felt singing that fight song at games is second only to the rush of “The Star- Spangled Banner.” We are a football town — within a military zone, no less. So Washington fans will understandably fight to keep it. That’s what we do. We fight. Over anything. I propose asking the Defense Department’s bureau of naming dangerous stuff to come up with a team moniker to match our destructive mind-set.
The Native Americans I know who live around here don’t go around complaining about the name. Here’s how they put it: We are happy for you when your team wins; we wish we could be happy with you. But for the name, they could. How can we be expected to come together and fight for D.C. while dissin’ one another?
Something’s got to give.
Michael Torbert, “Boss” of the team’s all-time greatest fans, the “Hogettes,” said as much when announcing the group’s retirement last month.
“Thirty years of guys in pig snouts and dresses is probably enough for any society,” he said. “It’s a new era. It was great seeing [Robert Griffin III] and Alfred Morris break onto the scene, and it’s a perfect time to retire the old era and start the new.”
Was that the fat lady singing or what, D.C.? Out with the old. It’s time to start anew.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/milloy.