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The trophy case: JFK vs. the Washington Redskins

David Blais

Asst. Sports Editor

Photo via the New York Book Review

The Washington Football Team, formerly the Washington Redskins, has faced many challenges over the years. Whether it was losing seasons, lack of free agency signings, draft busts, or controversy within the organization, somehow they find a way to always be in a tough situation. The most recent example was back in 2020 when team owner Dan Snyder was accused of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against team staff. The biggest controversy the team ever faced is also one of the biggest secrets in sports history.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s impacted the whole landscape of sports and politics. People fighting for equality and basic human rights resulted in the United States making essential changes to make sure everyone was represented.

The National Football League (NFL) had a history of rejecting the idea of equality. In 1933, there was a ban put in place on Black players being allowed within the league. It was not until the Los Angeles Rams signed the first Black athlete, running back Kenny Washington, to a professional football contract for teams to start ignoring the ban. During this time, the American Football League (AFL) had more to offer to African-American athletes compared to the NFL. There were no bans or restrictions on signing black players providing everyone with equal opportunities. However, the Washington Redskins did not want to adapt to the changing times.

Redskins owner and founder George Preston Marshall was a notorious racist. It was even reported when asked about signing Black players Marshall stated “I will sign Black players when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing white players.” The decisions on what teams signed in the AFL was left to the discretion of the owner of the team. Nothing could be done to prevent such awful practices continuing in the AFL. That was until 1961.

On November 8, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected as the second youngest President of the United States of America. President Kennedy was an advocate for Civil Rights and promised things would get done to forward the movement. In his first few months, over 40 Black people were appointed to important federal positions. Knowing the support Kennedy provided for equal opportunity, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall made the president aware of what was going on within the Washington Redskins organization. In the president’s weekly report, Udall wrote “George Marshall of the Washington Redskins is the only segregationist hold-out in professional football. . . . The Interior Department owns the ground on which the new Washington Stadium is constructed, and we are investigating to ascertain whether a no-discrimination provision could be inserted in Marshall’s lease.”

The Redskins were in the process of building a new state of the art stadium for the team. George Marshall had plenty of money to do it and wanted it to be the best in the nation. The ground in which the stadium was being built on was owned by the federal government. After reading the report, President Kennedy approved the signing of regulations by the Interior Department which prohibited discrimination on “any public facility in a park area.” Immediately following the regulations being signed off on, Udall notified Marshall that he and the Washington Redskins were under federal investigation for violating such practices. Marshall told reporters asking about the investigation “I am surprised that with the world on the brink of another war, they are worried about whether or not a Negro is going to play for the Redskins. All the other teams we play have Negroes; does it matter which team has the Negroes?” The owner of the Redskins would also say that only recruiting and signing white players was a “business decision.” Continuing to ignore the warning sent by Udall, Marshall received another one which threatened to provoke the rights of the Redskins using the stadium for home games.

During the offseason, members of the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) picketed the stadium’s construction site putting Marshall under more pressure. Even members of the Redskins’ board of directors started to push Marshall to change his mind to halt the negative press continuing to pile on for months now. Other team owners even asked NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to get involved. Rozelle’s involvement was a result of a new lucrative TV deal the league had signed in conjunction with the NFL. Rozelle initially declined but then changed his mind to show support to his team’s owners that were passionate about the matter. Using the TV deal as leverage, Marshall and Rozelle met resulting in some interesting promises. Marshall promised there would be no bans on signing black athletes to the team and even promised “considering” drafting Black players in the upcoming NFL Draft. Udall hearing these statements prompted a treaty between the two parties. Udall would lift the original plan to ban the use of the stadium by the team for home games if they had at least one black player on their roster the following season. Marshall followed through with two promises by drafting a Black athlete, Ron Hatcher, in the eighth round. Hatcher was the first African-American to sign a contract with the team. Controversy continued with protest from fans and activist groups boycotting games with some games having less than 100 people in attendance. The team was making much needed changes for the times, if they wanted to or not.

Sports in today’s day and age is full of diversity, as it should be. Unfortunately race is still an ongoing issue in sports, and the nation. Examples such as this one with the Washington Redskins are reminders of the struggle and sacrifices that the Black community have faced to get where they are now. These footnotes in history should be taught and discussed due to their crucial role in telling the story of sports.


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