November 8, 2013

Daniel Snyder should take advantage of his football team’s time off this weekend to retire to a quiet place where he can reflect. Snyder needs to give more thought not to the team’s win-loss record but to the growing uproar over its name. Hanging in the balance is nothing less than his legacy as a National Football League team owner.

Would that the team’s original owner, George Preston Marshall, had seriously reconsidered his opposition to changing the team’s all-white composition. But Marshall was unbending in his resistance to change.

Although Marshall is enshrined in the NFL’s Hall of Fame, his stubborn refusal to lift his ban on African American football players earned him an irrevocable place in history as the most notorious bigot among NFL team owners.

Snyder is not vying for that title. Nor does he deserve to be called racist because he has rejected requests to change the team’s name, which some find offensive. As it happens, Snyder and my three children were classmates more than 30 years ago at Charles W. Woodward High School in Montgomery County. Nothing emerged during that period — or since — to suggest that he bears animus against any racial group.

I believe that Snyder feels he has a tradition to uphold. The Redskins came to Washington from Boston, with that name, in 1937. Thousands of fans have proudly raised the name in song season after season, for decades. No offense, Snyder maintains, is intended.

But many have taken offense. “Redskin” is widely regarded as an epithet that should not be used in reference to Native Americans.

Snyder, unfortunately, is stubborn, and he clings, insensitively, to the disparaging term. That is a serious mistake. The longer he holds out, the wider and more persistent the opposition will become. And the more Snyder defends that pejorative, the more he becomes this era’s George Preston Marshall.

Let’s be clear: Snyder is far from rivaling Marshall as a racist. Marshall reportedly said that the only thing he liked “about Negroes is the color of their money” and that he loved Jews “when they are customers.”

Marshall played to the South. He went out of his way to recruit white players from Southern college teams and changed a line in the team’s song from “Fight for old D.C.” to “Fight for old Dixie.” According to a post on the team’s Web site, the team scheduled their exhibition games in Southern towns such as Norfolk; Memphis; Mobile, Ala.; Shreveport, La.; and Winston-Salem, N.C.

In the 1950s, Marshall ordered celebrations of South Carolina Day, Georgia Day, North Carolina Day and the like, staged with parades on game day around Griffith Stadium, which was at Georgia Avenue and W Street NW, in the heart of Black Washington.

In those days the team had a wildly loyal fan base, including some African Americans. But many folks of color, such as the King household, rooted their heads off against Marshall’s Redskins when integrated football teams came to town.

Charles K. Ross wrote in “Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League” of how visiting black players from around the league would have a field day against Marshall’s all-white Redskins.

“In nine games against the Redskins,” wrote Ross, “Ollie Matson of the Chicago Cardinals scored eleven touchdowns, Willie Galimore of the Chicago Bears, playing in preseason and regular season games against Washington, scored nine touchdowns in four games; Tom Wilson of the LA Rams scored six touchdowns in six games; Jim Brown scored six touchdowns in three games, and before he retired, Marion Motley scored sixteen touchdowns against the Redskins’ defense.”

Those victories over our hometown team left many African Americans in ecstasy because we loathed the owner’s racist policy. Not an uplifting sentiment, I know, but heartfelt nonetheless.

Those feelings changed, however, with the arrival of Bobby Mitchell, Charley Taylor and other African American players. In a heartbeat, I joined in lustily singing “Hail to the Redskins” when the team scored. And I sang without a thought of giving offense. Slurring, embarrassing or demeaning American Indians was the furthest thought from my mind.

Eventually, it dawned on me that regardless of how well-intentioned I might be, the name was wrong. “Redskins” wasn’t a name fashioned by American Indians. It was assigned to them, just as the pejorative designation “darkies” was once imposed on my forebears. I concluded that the insulting language was wrong.

My thoughts were expressed 21 years ago in a March 5, 1992, Post editorial: “The Redskin Issue.”

The name is still insulting.

One day, with or without the current owner, the name will go.

But unlike the recalcitrant and unrepentant Marshall, Dan Snyder, looking ahead, should lead the way.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.