The Spirit of George Preston Marshall
George Preston Marshall’s spirit still haunts the NFL.
The NFL’s un-ironic yet completely tone-deaf condemnation of racial inequality despite their actions during the Colin Kaepernick saga is the latest black mark on a league with a chequered history in its dealings with racial tensions. Add into this mix the trouble the league has with the hiring of minority coaches and their current attempts to essentially bribe teams to start hiring them. I use the word minority specifically here rather than black, because the issue stems to Hispanic and even Native American coaches, for example, Tom Flores’s achievements should stand out as an example of what minority coaches can achieve.. Despite what progress has been made, NFL owners have a long history of looking out for their own interest and chasing dollars over fighting injustice.
The NFL’s long-standing troubles with black players specifically reached a significant peak between 1934 and 1946 when black players were essentially banned from playing in the NFL. While there was no league wide specific ban on black players NFL owners formed a “gentleman’s” agreement that led to their exclusion. This was largely at the behest of Washington Redskins owner (and NFL hall of famer no less) George Preston Marshall.
George Preston Marshall was one of three founders of the Boston Braves in 1932, but by 1933 he was the sole person in charge of the team, after sharing the field with the baseball team of the same name he moved the team to Fenway and changed its name to Redskins in that same year, allegedly because the team had 4 Native American players at the time and head coach William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz was part Sioux though Marshall denied that claim. The term redskin was developing a negative connotation at that time, but controversy surrounding the term didn’t really begin until the 1960s.
By the end of 1933 Ray Kemp of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Joe Lillard of the Chicago Cardinals has been driven out of the league despite Lillard accounting for half the Cardinals’ points that year. There wouldn’t be any black players in the NFL for 12 years.
12 years is a long time to maintain such an agreement and while it is widely acknowledged that George Preston Marshall is the architect of this absence, every owner at the time from Rooney, to Mara to Halas to Bidwell is complicit. The NFL was at that time 13 years old and as one of the football leagues that had really remained in business was real starting to take off, however as the Great depression and increased racial segregation in order to survive these external pressures the NFL segregated itself in order to protect its income from its richer, white punters.
The NFL itself donates a single 1029-word article on its football operations website to cover this portion of its history. It tells the story of how Halas tried and failed to UCLA standout Kenny Washington in 1940 and is at pains to point out that they weren’t as bad as baseball. The Pro-football hall of fame’s website lists the first black player for every team at the time and when they were signed. In certain respects, this almost total lack of acknowledgement shows that this is something the NFL is certainly not proud of, but their almost total ignorance of it indicates a failure to own its mistakes and own up to them. A short article not even on the NFLs main website feels like a token gesture towards something it would rather sweep under the rug.
During the 12 year absence of black players in Pro Football the NFL, unlike baseball, there were no Negro leagues of football opportunities for black players were few and far between, they found themselves playing on semi-pro teams or barnstorming teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks or the Harlem Brown Bombers.
George Preston Marshall is credited with some major changes to the game that did improve the game for the masses, he introduced half time pageantry, the Redskins’ fight song and along with fellow owner George Halas proposed and introduced several rule changes to improve the play of the game and increase scoring such as allowing a forward pass anywhere behind the line of scrimmage instead of five yards or greater as was the case at the time and moving the goalposts to encourage more field goals. To endear his team to the city he famously paid for trains for 10,000 fans to travel to a game against the Giants in 1937. These things all helped the team grow at a time of great difficulty.
At the time Washington had a large following in the south of America, firstly because it was the most southerly team and secondly because of its owner’s attitude towards race. Various sources state the latter reason as by far the most significant reason. He embraced TV in the 50s and broadcast Washington’s games to the entire south.
The NFL has been nothing if not consistent and it has been that way throughout its history and that’s first and foremost money comes first. The Notes First League if you will pardon such a tenuous aside. So, the cause of reintegration in the NFL can be attributed at least in part to money also, but also legislative intervention. When the Cleveland Rams applied to move to Los Angeles and use the LA memorial coliseum in 1946 the NFL was given a start choice.
The Coliseum, as a publicly funded stadium was subject to legal statutes to California and as such, they could not lease the stadium to a segregated team. An additional complication was the emergence of the new AAFC (All-American Football Conference) and more specifically the LA Dons who has also applied to use the stadium. In order to access the burgeoning California market and stave off competition from a new rival the Rams were forced to accept though this caused significant ructions among NFL owners at the time.
In the end the Rams signed two black players to their roster, Kenny Washington mentioned above who at that time had made his way to a member of the LAPD at the time. He was joined on the Rams roster by Woody Strode giving the the Rams and by extension the league two black players in 1946. Incidentally the Dons held out till 1947 but the AAFC was much more successful at integrating players than the NFL. The AAFCs Cleveland Browns had two black players in their debut 1946 season and by the time the AAFC merged with the NFL in 1950 6 of the 8 AAFC teams had black players on their roster. Only three AAFC teams were allowed into the NFL in the end those being the Browns, Colts and 49ers. The NFL itself was much slower to react and by the same point only the Lions and the Packers had joined the Rams in adding black players to their roster.
By 1959 12% of all NFL players were black, but George Preston Marshall and the Washington Redskins were still holding out. Marshall was a fierce opponent of any expansion of the league, particularly in the south. The initial Dallas Texans played only one season in 1952, their entry to the league approved 11-1. They folded due to lack of local business interest and the team was returned to the league. It’s assets being passed to what would become the Baltimore Colts (not the same as the AAFC one).
When Dallas businessmen Clint Murchison Jr and Bedford Wynne approached the league about forming a team in Dallas again in 1960 they saw strong opposition from Marshall once again, who was unwilling to expand the NFL further down south. This was one to protect the his team’s position as the south’s dominant team and two and definitely more insidious is that he didn’t want to provide access to the game for Black fans which would be more prominent in the southern states. In the end money would talk once more. Murchison was quite canny and bought the rights to “Hail to the Redskins” essentially holding it to ransom until he got his franchise. There were alternate pressures to motivate this change to, notably the emergence of the AFL and Lamar Hunt’s Dallas Texans (no relation).
It wasn’t until 1962 that the Washington Redskins finally fielded a black player and even then, it wasn’t willingly. In the end the US Secretary of the Interior, a presidential cabinet member intervened and threatened to evict the team from their brand new one-year old D C Stadium, now the Robert F Kennedy memorial stadium. Marshall had to relent and in 1962 took Ernie Davis of Syracuse with the first pick of the draft. Davis however refused to play for the “S.O.B” and so worried it would cost him more money he would be willing to give a black player to get him to play and was immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns for Bobby Mitchell and their first round pick Leroy Jackson. Tragically Davis would die of Leukaemia at the age of 23 having never played a down in Cleveland. Mitchell would play 6 years for Washington while Jackson managed just two.
George Preston Marshall was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, just one year later.
Even as the league “progressed” there were rumoured “quotas” of black players, or teams would stock pile black players all at the same positions thus limiting the number of black players that could be on the field at the same time.
“They don’t have a right to deny 12 years of being locked out. They don’t have the right to deny what it cost us,” Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Fast Forward to 2016 and Colin Kaepernick silently and without real fanfare begins protesting the treatment of black Americans during the National Anthem before games. When quizzed about his protest Kaepernick calmly states the reason for his protest and is met with a warm sense acknowledgement and little scepticism. When US President and colossal man child Donald trump got involved all hell broke loose and the NFL conspired to see Kaepernick out of the league. All of a sudden bums left seats, viewing figures dropped and the NFL concluded that the “confederate” dollar was more important than peaceful protest and responsible use of a players platform. Protests we banned and players were encouraged to find other ways to get their message across. Players are now simply allowed to stay in the locker room, out of the way where they can’t hurt revenues. While 70% of players these days are black most of the NFLs audience is white, essentially NFL owners sided against their own employees.
So the NFL’s psychotic tone-deafness in tweeting in memory of George Floyd and feeling sympathy with the anger in America’s black communities they do so safe in the knowledge that a tweet will cost them nothing and earn them a token PR nudge in the eyes of Joe Scratchbum on the NFL twitter feed, completely forgetting they shut down an identical protest not two years earlier. While the NFL goes to great lengths to highlight how they weren’t as bad as MLB, what they fail to acknowledge in such a lazy comparison is that while they try to sweep their shady past under the rug, MLB has moved to use it and own it. April 15th every year is Jackie Robinson day, the player who broke the baseball colour barrier in 1947. His number is retired across the league and his memory celebrated in the baseball hall of fame, into which he was inducted in 1962. Meanwhile, Kenny Washington his UCLA teammate is barely acknowledged, and his name hasn’t been near a hall of fame mention, he passed in 1971.
When Tarik Cohen and Kyle Fuller unveiled the Chicago Bears 1936 throwbacks, they were the first black players to wear it. There are currently 4 minority head coaches in the league and two general managers.
The following 2 paragraphs were added the morning after Roger Goodell’s apology to players who protested. Fast forward again to Roger Goodell’s apology to players who protested and while the apology is a start in the established patterns of the NFL it’s not difficult to believe this came as a direct response to some of the leagues most established stars calling the NFL out. I wonder how many owners approved that apology and while words are important actions in the NFL aren’t really possible without the buy in of team owners. It also immediately serves two other purposes it prevents any potential backlash from the NFLPA and is distant enough from the season that it won’t be retained in the minds of many folk when the time to put bums on seats comes round.
The NFLs failure to acknowledge its murky history is a significant problem and it’s a problem that isn’t going to go away, hell two time Super Bowl winning coach and first Hispanic coach Tom Flores isn’t a hall of famer. The names Mara, Bidwell and do on continue to exist in a pantheon of old white groups that own teams in the NFL. Goodell’s apology isn’t even a start in correcting the NFL’s history of race problems, it’s merely an acknowledgement that the problem exists. The true test will be if or when a player takes a knee next season or even if they’re allowed to. We’ll find out what this apology means then.
So, when considering ways to improve black representation on NFL coaching staffs and in back offices and ownership, working with if history has shown us anything it’s that George Preston Martial’s grim spirit still lives on in the NFL. Only Money, whether fear of losing it, fear of losing the ability to make it or power wielded over them are sufficient to move it forward.
My usual disclaimer follows: I am not a historian or a history writer. Everything I have written I believe to be the case and, in that spirit, have shared as many sources as I can to allow anyone who disagrees to see how I arrived at my conclusions.