Skip to main content

JFK, Obama: Redskins needs to change

By Thomas G. Smith
updated 7:55 AM EST, Thu November 14, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kennedy administration in 1961 asked Redskins team owner to lift its racial ban
  • Thomas Smith: 50 years later, President Obama said team name should be changed
  • He says diehard fans use history and tradition to defend offensive name and logo
  • Smith: Public opinion calls for racial sensitivity; current owner will have to respond

Editor's note: Thomas G. Smith, professor of history at Nichols College, is author of "Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins" (Beacon Press, 2011).

(CNN) -- History does not necessarily repeat itself, but sometimes it makes echoes. An echo from 50 years ago reverberates today over the flap regarding the Redskins nickname and logo.

Disturbed by the Redskins quarter-century ban against African-American players, the Kennedy administration in 1961, with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall spearheading the effort, instructed team owner George Preston Marshall to lift the racial ban or face federal sanction.

Marshall had signed a 50-year contract to play home games in the newly constructed D.C. Stadium scheduled to open in 1962. The federal government controlled the land on which the stadium sat, and as landlord it would deny use to any employer who practiced racial discrimination.

Thomas G. Smith
Thomas G. Smith

Marshall was initially defiant. He would never yield to the government's demand. The Redskins had a long history and tradition of "no black players" that resonated with its fervent fan base. If he signed black players, white fans might retaliate by not buying tickets and merchandise.

Didn't the Kennedy administration have more important issues to deal with than whether the Redskins had a black player? And why blacks in particular? Why not other ethnic groups? Why not a female player?

The move to integrate the Redskins was liberalism run amok, said traditionalists. Troublemaking socialists were trying to tell a business owner how to run his business.

Redskins nickname: On the way out?
Support grows to change Redskins name

But the federal threat of withholding use of D.C. Stadium and mounting public pressure from sports journalists, opinion shapers, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the black community, including Jackie Robinson, eventually caused Marshall to jettison the team's sacred lily white tradition and hire black players.

At the time, few Americans, including Udall himself, considered the Redskins nickname racially insensitive. In fact, Udall played high school football and basketball for the St. Johns, Arizona -- you guessed it -- Redskins. In the 1930s when Udall went to high school and in the early 1960s when he headed the interior department, racial stereotypes were commonplace.

African-Americans were referred to as "darkies" and "colored," and Native Americans as "redskins." On TV Westerns, "Indians" were sometimes portrayed as noble characters, but "redskins" almost never were.

Over the decades, most Americans have come to learn that names like "darkies," "colored" and "redskins," not to mention the N-word, are considered racially offensive and hurtful. The Washington Redskins made a partial concession to racial sensitivity in the early 1960s when they cleaned up the demeaning language in their fight song, which read, in part, "Scalp 'um, swamp 'um, we will take 'um big score."

Unlike George Marshall, Dan Snyder, the present-day owner of the Washington football team, is no racist. Nor are the vast majority of the team's fans. But he, and perhaps most fans of the team, refuses to acknowledge that the nickname and logo are offensive.

Like Marshall, he is being pressured by the President of the United States and the commissioner of the NFL to consider a name change. Like Marshall, he is defiant. He will "NEVER" give up the name. Fans of the team defend the name and logo on the basis of history and tradition.

But a half century earlier, diehard fans were using history and tradition to defend a system of racial segregation in the South. American Nazis paraded outside D.C. Stadium carrying signs reading "Keep Redskins White." Just like then, current defenders of tradition blast liberals for interfering in an issue that is none of their business. Traditionalists claim the nickname honors Native Americans. But the name is no more ennobling than slurs for Jews, Irish, Japanese or other Asians.

Some fans ask why focus on the Redskins in particular? Because names like Chiefs, Indians (minus Chief Wahoo) and Braves (minus the tomahawk chop) are not demeaning. "What about the Irish of Notre Dame?" one of my college students asked. "That's not offensive or demeaning," I replied, "but what if they were named 'the Drunken Irish'?" "That would be even better," he said. That answer got a laugh but no one really took him seriously.

Just as in George Marshall's day, public opinion is mounting for racial sensitivity. A president has become involved. Native Americans have filed a lawsuit against the trademark. Representatives of the Oneida nation have met with officials of the NFL to protest the nickname and logo. On Wednesday Oneida Indians thanked President Obama for supporting a name change. Journalists like Christine Brennan of USA Today, Bob Costas of NBC Sports, Peter King of Sports Illustrated, and Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and others have advocated for a nickname change.

The echo is loud and clear. Eventually the Washington team owner will hear it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Thomas G. Smith.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT