There are certain moments when a man has a chance to do something that will never be forgotten. Branch Rickey won the World Series four times as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, but he is remembered first and foremost for bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, breaking baseball’s color line.
Changing the name of Washington’s football team isn’t going to put Snyder in the same sentence with Rickey, but it will allow him to create some space between himself and the team’s first owner, proud racist and segregationist George Preston Marshall. Which is why now is the right time for Snyder to step forward and announce he has had a change of heart.
People are allowed to do that. Snyder dug his heels in seven years ago when he told USA Today: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
He went on to talk about being a lifelong fan of the team and how other fans understood the tradition that went along with the name. If the past four weeks have taught us nothing else, it is that standing on tradition is now a thing of the past.
On Friday, two monuments connected to Washington sports came down. Outside Target Field in Minnesota, the Twins removed the statue of former owner Calvin Griffith, who once said in a speech that one of the main reasons he moved his team from the District to Minnesota was that there were only 15,000 black people in Minnesota at the time. The Twins didn’t try to remove Griffith’s name from the history books; in fact, they acknowledged he was part of the team’s history. They just said it was way past time to remove the statue that honored him.
That same day, the same thing happened to Marshall’s monument that sat outside RFK Stadium — a decision made by Events DC, which runs the campus of the former home of Snyder’s team.
On Saturday, Snyder’s franchise retired the number of Bobby Mitchell, the team’s first black player and a longtime member of the front office. Mitchell died in April at 84.
Why it took this long for the team to retire his number is anyone’s guess, but it’s easy to see why the team made the announcement when it did: It also slipped in the fact that the lower deck of FedEx Field, which had been named after Marshall, would bear Mitchell’s name going forward. There was no mention of Marshall in the team’s news release.
If Snyder thinks honoring Mitchell posthumously and quietly removing Marshall’s name is enough, he’s wrong. He needs to act quickly, not hope the nickname issue goes away.
Snyder is going to need to be pushed and cajoled before he does the right thing. No one on his payroll is going to do it. That’s why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — with the backing of Snyder’s fellow owners — needs to do the cajoling.
A few weeks ago, Goodell issued his statement saying that, “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.”
They’re all just empty words until and unless Goodell backs them up. Here’s his first opportunity: Let Snyder know, either privately or publicly, that this is the time for change. Goodell should stand up and admit that his letter to Congress seven years ago that noted the Redskins name is “a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect” was wrong and insulting.
Goodell can quote any dictionary on the planet to dispense with that foolish comment. He needs to point out to Snyder that any past sentiment or polling is now moot. It’s clear the mood in the country is different now, and this issue isn’t going away.
As my colleague Barry Svrluga pointed out last week in his very smart column on this subject, the move, in addition to being right, will make Snyder money. Imagine the financial windfall that will come with selling every last bit of licensed Redskins gear and memorabilia, followed by folks lining up to be the first wearing the team’s new logo. That’s not the reason to change the name, but it would be a perk Snyder no doubt would enjoy greatly.
No doubt it will be difficult for Snyder. He will get some blowback, including quite possibly from the president, but he can let people know he is past all that. He has awakened in 2020 and knows in his heart this is the right thing to do.
Snyder can bury his head in the sand on this and continue a shameful legacy. Or he can be a hero and change his own legacy and that of the team he claims to love so much.