Marshall finally retreated, of course, but only under threat of bayonet from the federal government, making a move that risked alienating white supremacist fans to whom Marshall catered. He traded for a black player, Bobby Mitchell, in 1962 and infamously welcomed him to the District at a dinner where Marshall instructed the Confederate anthem, “Dixie,” be played as he urged Mitchell to sing along.
Dad and his friends returned to cheer for the newly integrated team that season, only to realize Mitchell’s arrival was cover for Marshall’s bigotry. For they, the progeny of enslaved Africans like Mitchell, also were forced to endure Marshall’s embrace of supremacist messaging. Marshall had every home game open with his team’s famous marching band playing that Confederate anthem.
Dad complained about the nauseating song in a letter to Edward Bennett Williams, who became acting team president as Marshall aged into incapacity. Williams agreed that the team had more untangling to do with traditions that were an affront to a growing demographic of players such as Mitchell and fans such as my father and his friends.
I thought of that history after your confession in the wake of yet another black man’s killing — George Floyd’s, I think, or was it Ahmaud Arbery’s or Rayshard Brooks’s? — that you had led the NFL astray at the behest of 32 franchise owners. You admitted taking it in an insensate direction by refusing to consider the protest waged by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a few other players of the extrajudicial killings of black men.
But as there was for Marshall’s franchise, there is more for the NFL to untangle itself from when it comes to offending the sensibilities of black men who make up the bulk of the league, who are a significant part of the fan base and for whom the protests of today resonate the most.
It isn’t enough that, in the great tradition of neoliberalism, you committed $250 million over the next 10 years of the league’s estimated $15 billion in annual revenue to aid the fight for racial injustice to which Kaepernick and others demanded attention. I know, I know; that’s at least 1.6 percent of annual revenue for causes that directly affect upward of 70 percent of the athletic labor of the league!
It isn’t enough that you openly encouraged franchises to give Kaepernick an opportunity to play again after blackballing him since he stepped into free agency in 2017. What a fortunate thing there are a few black coaches left in the league. It took one of them, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Anthony Lynn, to consider throwing that bone to disgruntled fans on your behalf.
As Penn State professor Amira Rose Davis reminded on a recent NPR show on which we appeared: “[Kaepernick] would get a job in a system that is still exploitative, a system that is run on black labor but not managed by it. So getting a job within that system, as is, can’t be the goal if we’re serious about this. Because that requires a complete rethinking and overhaul of so many of the foundations of sports.”
In short, the return of Kaepernick, whom you and the league kept from playing in what may have been the prime of his career, would be tokenism at best.
Instead, what your league — and all others in recent weeks that have issued what read like boilerplate statements about black lives mattering — needs to do is heed the reason for which Kaepernick protested, which is systemic racist policing, particularly in cities across this country where NFL franchises are based. It is disingenuous for the NFL — or the NBA, for that matter — to market black athletic talent for billions of dollars in those locales while that talent is unable to separate itself from problematic policing policies.
Want to make a difference? Rid the NFL of the imagery it promotes that is at the heart of the uprising in this country in the wake of Floyd’s death. Steal a page from the University of Minnesota, ground zero of the Floyd tragedy, which announced it would no longer contract for extra city police at games and concerts. Replace “Law Enforcement Appreciation” game days with those for social workers on the front lines of the mental health and drug abuse struggles in urban America.
And demilitarize game days.
“The NFL has mastered the symbolic performance of patriotism through its military partnerships,” Michael Butterworth, who directs the Center for Sports Communication and Media at the University of Texas, said via email. “There was shock and outrage when the ‘paid patriotism’ story broke in 2015, but those reactions failed to acknowledge all of the other coordination between the league and the military — from the ‘NFL Kickoff Live’ events in the years just after 9/11, to the endless mythologizing of Pat Tillman, to the marketing of ‘Salute to Service’ month each November.”
End the war machinery flyovers to honor troops that late Sen. John McCain, a former POW, in 2015 called a “boondoggle.” Replace the marching of the military to kick off games with, say, kids, as is the routine in soccer nowadays, who represent a purity we wished our games had as well as a future we may want them to realize.
As entrenched as the NFL is with soldiering, whether it is of those in our cities or the ones deployed in cities overseas, it may seem an impossible task, given the popularity of such performances. But the same was thought of imagery Marshall promoted.
Dad asked Williams to consider not insulting black fans with Confederate imagery. Williams responded by ordering “Dixie,” which sometimes invited the Confederate flag to be unfurled in the stands, erased from the band’s songbook.
The Washington franchise all these years later still has a big step to take on this front. And so does your league if you really believe black lives matter.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.