BOMBS AWAY: It’s that time of year again, and sadly, I find myself desperate for a new drug. Alcohol makes me as stupid as I already am. Pot makes me paranoid. When it comes to religion, I — like Fox Mulder of X-Files fame — may want to believe, but, unlike Mulder, I have serious doubts the truth is out there. For me, football has always delivered an acceptable oblivion; there are few things on the planet as endlessly riveting as the forward pass. The excesses of the game, however, have grown so invasive they can no longer be squinted away. When ex-players now shoot themselves in the heart so their brain tissue can be preserved for medical evaluation, clearly, we’ve taken a few wrong turns. While the elevator-cam images of Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his wife unconscious don’t come close to the grisly gore of the beheading images spammed by Islamic whack jobs trying to get their point across, they still shock and offend. For his assault, Rice was infamously suspended for two games by league commissioner Roger Goodell. When a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns tested positive for smoking pot, Goodell banished him for an entire year.
Having first ingested football Kool-Aid while growing up in the suburban sprawl of Washington, D.C., I am forced — yet again — to confront the obviously racist name of my home team, the Redskins. This issue has been popping up since 1992, but now it’s here to stay. Earlier this year, a federal judge stripped the Redskins of their trademark protections because the name is patently offensive. Now anyone can sell Redskin paraphernalia without getting sued by the Redskins. Another judge has ruled that the term “Redskin” will not be uttered in his court or written in court documents, but shall henceforth be known as “The Washington Team.” Network football commentators Phil Simms and Tony Dungy — both Super Bowl winners — have vowed not to use the “R” word when covering games in which the R-words are playing. And sometime this August, the California Assembly — apparently not having much to do — passed a resolution urging Redskin owner Dan Snyder to change the team name. “Over my dead body,” Snyder has consistently replied.
If contradiction were an intoxicating illegal substance, then the Redskin’s obscenely convoluted history is a wagon off of which I would repeatedly fall. Team owner Snyder and Goodell have sought to make the case that the name originated as an expression of respect and admiration. According to Goodell, the name implies “strength, courage, pride and respect.” This fiction stems from the myth that the team was so named in honor of the fact that its first coach — a guy named Lone Star Dietz — was part Sioux. This, of course, is pure hogwash. Dietz only claimed such heritage as a dodge to get him out of the draft during World War I, a lie that got him 30 days in the slammer. Team founder George Preston Marshall denied such rumors, as well, in newspaper accounts published in 1933. Marshall was one of America’s great racists, and no one, least of all Snyder of Goodell, should pretend otherwise. He steadfastly refused to hire black players until forced to do so in 1961 by the federal government, famously protesting he’d hire blacks only when the Harlem Globetrotters hired whites. But Marshall needed an easement over federally owned land to build his brand-new stadium, so racism took a backseat to business. Still, when Bobby Mitchell, the first black to actually play for the Redskins, stepped off the bus for his first training camp, Marshall greeted him, and insisted Mitchell join along in singing “Dixie,” then the national anthem of the segregationist South. Marshall’s impact, of course, was felt much more broadly. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Marshall, a successful businessman, bailed out the league financially. In exchange, he demanded no team hire any black players. Period. That color line would crack only when new leagues sprang up to challenge the monopolistic dominance of the NFL. When Marshall died in 1969, he left his fortune to a new foundation, stipulating not one dollar be spent on anything “that supports the principle of racial integration in any form.”
On the positive side, it was Marshall who seized on the passing game — rather than the monotonous sludge-and-trudge running attack — as the key to attracting new fans. At his instigation, the football was physically re-engineered to make it easier to throw. Hence the perfect spiral. History has since revealed the forward pass originated — pre-Marshall — at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, not Notre Dame as previously believed. The Carlisle players were too small to compete head-on with the smash-and-crash behemoths of their white rivals, so they developed the pass as the great equalizer. It worked. The Carlisle School, incidentally, was founded by a former Indian hunter intent on “Americanizing” Native American students by drumming their cultural heritage out of them. While the death rate was high, those who survived were indoctrinated into the White Man’s way through football. Out of this emerged the changes that have made football what it is today. Ironically, it would be the Redskins — long after Marshall died — who would first win the Super Bowl with a black quarterback — Doug Williams — at the helm. Williams threw for a record four touchdowns.
Just because there’s no remotely supportable defense for keeping the Redskin name is no reason it should be changed. The name inextricably ties Washington, D.C. — the nation’s capital — to the twin original sins of slavery and genocide. Maybe that sounds preachy, but as names go, that’s an accomplishment. Closer to home, it turns out the Chumash played a game called shinny, in which about 200 people thronged onto a field — men and women together — and tried to bat a hard wooden ball into the opposing team’s goal. Sounds cool. Maybe I’ll round up 200 close personal acquaintances for a pick-up game over at La Cumbre Junior High. Should I come up short, thank god the season’s started.