Black fans have grown to love the Redskins
By Dan Steinberg and Chris L. Jenkins,
Fifty years ago this fall, civil rights groups protested the opening of D.C. Stadium, whose most important tenants — the Washington Redskins — were the last National Football League team to remain segregated. A half-century after many area sports fans boycotted the team for racial reasons, the Redskins have an unrivaled hold on Washington’s black community.
The affinity for the team is seen at Mount Ephraim Baptist Church on fall Sundays, when the Rev. Joseph Gilmore Jr., dismisses his parishioners at 12:30 so he can get situated in his “man cave” before kickoff.
It’s revealed at Fairmont Heights High School, where math teacher George Wake gets students’ attention on Monday mornings “with some kind of math problem involving the Redskins and Cowboys.” And it’s evident at DeMatha High, where boys’ basketball players must declare their allegiance before Washington-Dallas games, with the losing side running extra wind sprints the following day.
The deep relationship between the Washington area’s black sports fans and the Redskins is supported by a new Washington Post poll , which found that two-thirds of African American fans have a favorable view of the team and four in 10 feel that way “strongly.” Less than half of white fans have an overall favorable view. The racial differences concerning Daniel Snyder, the team’s owner, are even starker. Black fans are fairly evenly divided on Snyder, but 72 percent of white sports fans in the area give Snyder negative marks, compared with 9 percent positive.
Snyder, through a spokesman, and other Redskins officials declined to comment for this story.
There are several explanations for these differences. The team has spent decades playing in largely black neighborhoods, from its current home in Prince George’s County — which black fans view more favorably than whites by a more than two-to-one margin — to RFK Stadium on East Capitol Street, surrounded by carryout joints and barbershops.
“Look at where RFK is and was. It’s in the heart of the city,” said NBA guard Roger Mason Jr., a lifelong Redskins fan who followed the team with his father in his youth. “I’m not talking about the White House. I’m talking about Southeast.”
Black fans are more likely to be interested in the NFL as a whole; more than half of black fans in the region express a “great deal” of interest in professional football, compared with 37 percent of white fans. Black fans are also more likely to hail from the Washington area; the Redskins are rated much more positively by fans of all races who have lived here at least 10 years. But even among fans who have been in the area for at least a decade, seven in 10 blacks have favorable views of the Redskins, compared to five in 10 whites.
The black community’s affection for the team, which can be traced to the arrival of its first African American stars in the mid-1960s, is on display throughout the region today.
The Like That Barber Shop, on Good Hope Road, hangs photos on the wall of Redskins players who have driven to Anacostia for haircuts, including current stars Fred Davis and LaRon Landry. Radio station 95.5 continues to play weekly Redskins songs, with singer Black Boo laying down football lyrics over rap and R&B beats. Many parishioners at the First Baptist Church of Highland Park, less than a mile from FedEx Field, switch to the 7:30 a.m. service during football season so they don’t miss Redskins games.
“The Redskins, especially when they’re winning, it’s something to kind of pour yourself into, something to look forward to,” said Lizz Robbins, 37, of Montgomery County.
NBA stars and D.C.-area natives Kevin Durant and Jeff Green went together to a recent home game, with Durant clad in an ’80s-era Redskins jacket. So, too, did Anwan Glover, an actor from “The Wire” and founding member of go-go’s Backyard Band.
Trips to FedEx Field on days when the Redskins are playing reveal a crowd more diverse than at nearly any other large-scale social event in the area.
“Our region is such an eclectic region, and I think it transfers very very well on game day, and I do not see that across the country,” said Rick “Doc” Walker, a former player who now works the sidelines for the team’s radio broadcasts. “It’s one thing to support them, and a lot of fans buy gear. But to actually pay to hang out, tailgate, do the whole nine yards, it’s incredible. My visual on it is staggering, really.”
Mitchell’s arrival opens eyes
People offer several explanations for black Washington’s dedication to the Redskins, from hometown loyalty to family bonds to an affiliation with black stars. But many black fans, especially older ones, trace their loyalty to the team’s complicated racial past.
George Preston Marshall, who owned the team from 1932 until his death in 1969, wanted the Redskins to be the “Team of the South:” His band played “Dixie” and his “Hail to the Redskins” fight song encouraged fans to “fight for old Dixie” — a line that has since been changed to “fight for old D.C.”
“My uncles and grandfather, they were against the Redskins, totally against the Redskins,” said Bobby Richards, 61, a longtime high school football coach in the District. “They would root for Cleveland, for anybody that had black players.”
Attitudes started to change with the arrival of Bobby Mitchell, who was acquired in December 1961 after the federal government threatened to keep the Redskins out of D.C. Stadium if they didn’t integrate. Older black fans describe this as a seminal moment, when they transferred their hopes for Mitchell and his peers to the team itself.
“For years before Bobby Mitchell, a lot of us didn’t even pay attention to football, and if we did, we liked black players on other teams, whether it was Cleveland or Los Angeles,” said Terry Spears, 65, referring to teams that had black stars as early as the 1940s. “But when the Redskins got Bobby and then Larry Brown . . . those guys, they were people we could look up to. Our city had a team that had black players after all these years.”
When he arrived in Washington, Mitchell said, there were few black Redskins fans. Those who did exist put extraordinary pressure on him to be perfect, never to miss a block or drop a pass, because “I was now representing them.” But as he began to put up all-pro statistics, the fan base began to transform.
“All of a sudden when you showed up somewhere with the team, going to a game, you saw blacks,” he said this week. “When you went out of town to play a game, you got to the hotel and you got off the bus, you saw blacks. . . . They began to buy tickets and the whole works. It made a big difference.”
Mitchell went on to become a Hall of Famer and a top Redskins front-office official for decades, all while living in the city. And in a sport where loyalties are often passed on by people of influence, this marked a fundamental shift, signaling that the Redskins could be the team for black Washingtonians.
“When I first got to Washington, I hated the Redskins . . . embracing them was very, very difficult,” said Jim Vance, the longtime news anchor for News Channel 4 who moved to the city in 1969. “The reason I finally did had to do with a couple of special people,” he added, ticking off the names of Redskins greats from the late 1960s and 1970s. “Bobby Mitchell, Charley Taylor, Kenny Houston, Larry Brown and Brig Owens. These were stand-up guys — they were men of distinction. They were the reason I started to pay attention to [the] ’Skins.”
Mayor Vincent C. Gray, 68, also remembered his fandom beginning when the team became integrated, and when it began to win. The season before Mitchell arrived was a 1-12-1 disaster, the worst in franchise history.
“I didn’t follow them [before that], probably because they weren’t an integrated team,” Gray said in an interview Monday. “I started to follow them in the 1960s when they became a more exciting team. . . . And that led into the [George] Allen years, and it was clear that the most important thing to him was winning . . . It didn’t matter what you looked like. As they became an integrated team, they became far more attractive to me and to many residents of the city.”
Players from later eras have said they were not focused on the racial makeup of their fan base, but players from the 1960s and ’70s couldn’t help but notice. Pat Fischer, a white defensive back who lived in the city during the 1968 riots, said players were conscious of what was going on around them. “We accepted the responsibility as a team,” he said. “As a team, you could lead the community to at least a few days, a few hours of joy, because they identified with you. And then you have succeeded.”
Lonnie Sanders, a cornerback for the Redskins from 1963 to 1967, remembered black fans being especially nurturing of him. That support persuaded him to return to the city after he retired in 1969; he hasn’t left since.
“The integration of the Redskins, that was a new phenomenon, and . . . a lot of people wanted to be associated with it, attached to it. And all of a sudden they welcomed you everywhere,” Sanders, 69, said. “We would go out to different places and we would be showered with welcome: ‘Do you want a drink, do you want some food? Do you want dinner?’ That’s the kind of reception we received.”
Rival helps forge an identity
The team’s connection with blacks, fans and former players said, only got stronger when Allen, who became head coach in 1971, stirred up the rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys. A notable number of black sports fans in the city had embraced Washington’s chief rival. Indeed, 11 percent of black NFL fans who grew up in the area still identify the Cowboys as their favorite team, compared with 3 percent of whites. Standing up to the Dallas crowd made their own allegiance even stronger, many Redskins fans said.
“For me, the way George Allen was so ferocious about giving the team an identity, that rallied a lot of black people,” said Dennis Foster, 55. “And then you had the whole competition with the Cowboys and there was this us versus them mentality, because there are so many Cowboys fans here. That seemed to just heighten the love for the team.”
All of Washington, of course, became caught up with the franchise during the 1980s, when head coach Joe Gibbs achieved unprecedented success.
“It was a mostly black town, all of the sudden they became the bad boys in football, and that had to make everybody feel good,” said George Starke, an offensive lineman who lived in the District at a time when most, if not all, of his teammates lived in the suburbs. “The Redskins-Cowboys game was the biggest thing. A policeman described it to me: Everybody got four hours off. Crooks didn’t crook, nobody got shot, nobody burglarized anything. It would be bad form to hold someone up during the Redskins-Cowboys game, so the cops got four hours off. Everybody got a break. It brought the city together, sure.”
But even the Gibbs years carried a racial landmark. In 1988, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl win, an event that many fans interviewed for this story cited in explaining their loyalty. In fact, 10 percent of black sports fans in the area identified Williams as the greatest sports figure in the city’s history; less than one percent of white fans named him.
The Williams experience was soured for some fans when the team released the quarterback in 1990. Those feelings were rekindled a year ago, when Coach Mike Shanahan benched Donovan McNabb, one of the most successful black quarterbacks in league history. Despite having more positive feelings toward the franchise and its owner than white fans, black fans in this area are more likely to have a negative response to Shanahan, according to the survey.
Williams’s Super Bowl win continues to resonate with fans such as Shonna Briggs, 37. She was 13 when her father, now deceased, sat her down in front of the television and explained to her the significance of that game. She’s been hooked ever since.
“Of course I don’t think about Doug Williams every day, or even every football season, but that’s what got me started loving the team,” she said of his Super Bowl performance. Briggs said she has several of Williams’s No. 17 jerseys, which she wears to the three or four games she attends each season. “Basically my father said: ‘Here, watch this.’ It told me there was something more than just a game, that it was important.”
Such feelings about the Redskins, many fans said, have been passed down from mothers to sons, and from fathers to daughters. Numerous fans interviewed for this story connected their fandom not to place, but to family, citing Thanksgiving meals and Sunday dinners and family reunions in which conversation focused on Washington’s football team.
“I’ll tell you, there are blacks right now, they’re just Redskins fanatics,” Mitchell said. “You say something anti-Redskins and they go berserk. . . . I think they’re totally committed to the Redskins. I don’t think anything could happen to interfere with that.”
Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill, research analyst Scott Clement, polling director Jon Cohen and staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.