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KICK-OFF: Billie “Lone Star” Dietz might be the saddest fabulist most people never heard of. Now, 56 years after his ignominious death, Dietz finds himself enmeshed in one of the most protracted and gratuitous controversies about racism and sports — the name of Washington, D.C.’s football team. And like many scandals in the nation’s capital, Dietz, it turns out, had ties to Santa Barbara, where he acted in the city’s early silent movie industry.
Today, he is the last remaining parsley sprig of an excuse wielded by Daniel Snyder—perhaps the most odious owner in the entire National Football League—for not changing the name of the Washington Redskins to something—anything—else.
Snyder—under whose leadership the Redskins have floundered in benthic mediocrity—has only just agreed to think about changing the name, after having previously vowed it would “NEVER” happen. Various Native American organizations have been on the Redskins’ case since 1988—but until the recent eruption of Black Lives Matters such efforts went nowhere fast. Now, even FedEx—which owns $205 million worth of naming rights for the team’s stadium—has got religion. So too has Nike, which will no longer sell the team’s apparel.
The turning of this tide is long overdue, but as is often the case, sports leads the way, if even from behind. NASCAR famously was just shamed—thanks to the sport’s only Black driver, Bubba Wallace—into banning Confederate flags at NASCAR events. The State of Mississippi finally ditched the Confederate Stars and Bars on its state flag for fear of losing millions from college football games that would no longer be televised.
Growing up in D.C., I regularly heard otherwise sane and sentient adults insist—and actually mean it—that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. Maybe that’s part of the reason the most recent statehood proposal for the nation’s capital—46 percent Black—is DOA. (Wyoming, by the way, has fewer residents than D.C., but is granted all the privileges of political representation; Wyoming is also 84 percent white.)
The Redskins and racism go way back. Former owner George Preston Marshall—who all but wore KKK bedsheets—refused to allow any Black players on his team until forced to do so by former attorney general Bobby Kennedy, who threatened to withhold the public easement Marshall desperately needed to build the team’s new stadium. That stadium, ironically, was named RFK Stadium—after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
In the past, Snyder has argued that the term “Redskin” is not inherently offensive, because Marshall, who bought the Boston Braves in 1933, renamed the team a few years before moving it to D.C. He chose the name allegedly to honor the Native American heritage of the first coach he hired: William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz. Dietz presented himself as a Sioux Indian from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He had played on the same legendary Carlisle Indian School Team with Jim Thorpe. Later, he would coach the Pullman Cougar college team to victory in the 1916 Rose Bowl by utilizing a host of trick plays, his favorite being something he called “the dead Indian.”
Most of the story is true. But the key part is a great big lie. Yes, Dietz played with Thorpe; he attended not one but two Native American colleges; he was an accomplished artist who focused on tribal imagery and wrote passionate diatribes against white artists who engaged in racist caricatures of Native Americans. His first wife, also an artist, was of Native American heritage. But through Dietz’s veins, not one drop of tribal blood flowed. He was white through and through.
In 1904, Dietz happened to see James One Star, an actual Native American, perform in a Wild West Show at the St. Louis World’s Fair. He didn’t want to be like One Star; he would become One Star, adopting key details of One Star’s family history after One Star was conveniently dead.
There being no Google or Facebook, Dietz got away with it. At least until 1916, in the middle of WWI, when Dietz claimed he was Native American, and thus a noncitizen and immune from the draft. Given that Dietz was then coaching football for the U.S. Marines, this raised eyebrows. A federal agent went to Rice Lake, Wisconsin, where Dietz was actually born and tracked down Dietz’s actual parents, both of whom were of Teutonic—100 percent—stock. The real One Star’s sister took one look at Dietz and said he was not her brother.
In the off season, Dietz was earning cash by taking bit parts in movies produced by the American Film Company here in Santa Barbara. One of his bigger roles, as area historian Betsy J. Green found out, was in something called Lone Star. Another—equally appropriately—was Fool’s Gold.
Dietz was indicted in 1919 for avoiding the draft. The issue, the first judge ruled, was not whether Dietz was actually a Native American, but whether he thought he was. Dietz was convincing. His eyes watered up strategically. The first jury was hung. It would take prosecutors a second trial to secure a conviction.
Dietz served 30 days and went on to successfully coach enough college teams to be named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012. His stint with the Redskins, however, didn’t last. After two losing seasons, Marshall fired him. But the team name—later defended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as a sign of “strength, courage, pride, and respect”—was not changed with his departure.
By the time Dietz died in 1964, he was flat broke and former team-mates had to chip in to buy his gravestone. It read, “William ‘Lone Star’ Dietz born in South Dakota.”
That, of course, was a lie, too. Who know? Maybe he believed it.