- Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins by Thomas G Smith
In the early 1960s, after every other team in American professional football had integrated—including clubs in Houston and Dallas—the Washington Redskins of the National Football League (NFL) persisted in refusing to use African-American players. They finally integrated only after Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall threatened to use his power over the District of Columbia’s federal parkland to enforce President Kennedy’s anti-discrimination order and prevent the Redskins from playing in the glorious new stadium on federal land in the District (then known as D.C. Stadium, later re-named in honor of Robert F. Kennedy).
Some critics of Udall’s actions complained about federal government intrusion into private sector hiring decisions and warned this might lead to “mediocrity.” But mediocrity would have been an improvement on the performance of the all-white Redskins; Washington’s last two all-white teams combined for just two wins against twenty-one losses (with three ties). After integration the Redskins grew more competitive; in the 1970s [End Page 569] and 1980s they became one of the glamour franchises in all of American professional sports. By 2010 Forbes magazine ranked the Washington Redskins the fourth most valuable professional sports team in the world, after the British soccer club Manchester United, baseball’s New York Yankees, and the Redskins’ hated rival, the Dallas Cowboys (p. 215).
Smith has turned the history of the Redskins and their desegregation into a fascinating book, a fun read with many colorful characters starting with Marshall. The Redskins’ long-time owner was a headline-hogging showman who once said, “I don’t mind being disliked or even hated but I can’t stand to be ignored” (p. 97). He had to be dragged into racial progress, but his ideas about marketing professional football helped build the sport into a national obsession. Udall emerges as an underappreciated New Frontiersman who works hard to put liberal ideals into practice. Neo-Nazis make a cameo appearance, with their incongruous demand to “Keep the Redskins White!” Crucial to the story are legendary sportswriters Shirley Povitch and Sam Lacy, whose skewerings of Marshall for his racial backwardness furnish great material Smith uses well, and to entertaining effect.
This is an interesting and well-researched study of the Redskins’ history that has much to offer readers interested in the development of American professional football, sports in Washington D.C., or race relations in the national capital. Despite its strengths, though, the title is misleading. It is Udall, not John F. Kennedy, who looms largest as the force for integration. The showdown between the Kennedy administration and the Redskins occupies a relatively small place in the middle of the book. Earlier and later chapters cover the team’s development from its origins in Boston through Kennedy’s inauguration, and the legal wrangling between Marshall’s children and his business partners as his health failed. Interesting, but not what the title suggests. In addition, some readers may wish Smith had paid more attention to Marshall’s profit streams in the South: sensitivity to the team’s white Southern fan base—in the days before there were professional football teams in Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Charlotte, and Jacksonville—was the purported justification for refusing to integrate, but it is not clear how much legitimate business reason Marshall had for this.
Smith’s acknowledgments include a great story of how he happened onto the topic: Smith was researching Udall’s environmental activities when he found a file labeled “Washington Redskins.” Unfortunately, Smith handles some issues without the surefootedness of an expert in the subfield—like an environmental historian playing slightly out of position. The best example of this may be his treatment of Bobby Mitchell’s front office experience. The Redskins’ first black player, Mitchell moved to the front office after his playing days. Despite forty-one years of total service to the organization he never got the chance to be general...