- Fight for Old DC: George Preston Marshall, the Integration of the Washington Redskins, and the Rise of a New NFL by Andrew O'Toole
This work focuses on how George Preston Marshall, one of professional football's most influential owners for three decades, resisted pressure to desegregate his Washington Redskins, [End Page 122] while helping formulate policies intended to stabilize the National Football League (NFL) and expand its fan base. Marshall's was the last major professional sports team to remain all-white, not signing any African American players until 1962.
Marshall was part of the NFL's old guard, the small group of owners including George Halas and Art Rooney who assumed control of NFL franchises in the 1920s and 1930s and remained at the helm in the 1960s. These men helped transform pro football from a marginal, low-revenue sport into the nation's most popular during the 1960s. Marshall pioneered in bringing the hoopla associated with college football into the pro game to increase attendance and attract female spectators. O'Toole notes his use of marching bands; a team fight song, "Hail to the Redskins"; and elaborate halftime shows. He might also have discussed Marshall's formation late in his career of the NFL's premier cheering squad, the Redskinettes, whose dancing in flesh-colored tights was more evocative than anything on college sidelines.
Unlike many later NFL owners who devoted little attention to football issues, Marshall was directly involved in rule changes during the league's formative period in the 1930s. In 1936, he threw his weight behind NFL commissioner Bert Bell's proposal for a college draft to preserve competitive balance. O'Toole also discusses Marshall's role in restructuring league divisions and in debates over expansion.
A long-standing racist, Marshall was committed to keeping his team lily white and had Dixie played at games. Marshall used radio and, in the 1950s, television to identify the Washington Redskins with the entire southeastern United States. He assembled a regional network of stations to broadcast Redskins games that extended from Virginia and Maryland to Louisiana and Mississippi. Marshall attempted to deflect criticism of his unwillingness to desegregate by citing the number of African Americans he employed as deliverymen for his commercial laundry chain and in other menial positions. O'Toole notes that Halas and Rooney did not oppose Marshall when he insisted in 1933 that the NFL exclude African American players, a policy it maintained until 1946. As an expression of solidarity with southern resistance to desegregation, Marshall in 1959 changed the phrase "Fight for Old DC" in "Hail to the Redskins" to "Fight for Old Dixie."
O'Toole should have provided more context on racism in American sports during the 1950s and early 1960s, comparing Marshall more fully to other team owners. He does indicate that other NFL owners and Commissioner Bert Bell tolerated exhibition games in the South that barred African American players, but this complicity requires fuller discussion. The author should have provided more background by exploring baseball's response to the issue. During the 1950s, baseball's New York Yankees and football's New York Giants were condemned for scheduling exhibition games in Birmingham where African American team members were not permitted to play. Baseball's American League permitted the shift of its St. Louis franchise to Baltimore in 1954 in the face of strong objections from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which cited that city's rigid segregation of public facilities, in its view even more degrading than St. Louis's. The author briefly mentions the Philadelphia Eagles' refusal in 1961 to play an exhibition game against Marshall's Redskins in Norfolk, Virginia, where stadium seating was segregated but does not analyze the reaction of league executives, owners, and players.
O'Toole provides a useful discussion of Kennedy administration pressure on Marshall to desegregate the Redskins after they moved into government-owned District of...