The History Of The Washington Redskins, And Against Journalism’s Neutrality Fetish

Michael Tomasky has a completely fantastic piece about the racist history of the Washington Redskins and the integration of the national football league that both lends context to some of the debates we have about the ethics of watching black athletes destroy their bodies for our entertainment, and to the idea that journalists are or should be objective:

The move to Washington meant that the Redskins were now the young National Football League’s most southern team, its only one below the Mason-Dixon Line…Marshall aggressively marketed the Redskins as the South’s team. He would be the last NFL owner to integrate his team and did so after years of heavy resistance and only because of government pressure…

It is largely for this reason that the NFL, in contrast to major league baseball, had actually had a few black players—the owners were desperate enough to accept them, and the public just didn’t care enough to lodge the usual protests about “mongrelization.” But in 1933, the league suddenly banned black players. It did so secretively, and no one would ever own up to the decision…Professional football actually reintegrated the year before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball…Pressure was growing, in these postwar years, after blacks had fought in World War II, for things to change, and one of the more informative aspects of Smith’s absorbing book is his discussion of the pressures brought by sportswriters in the black press of whom one hears very little today—journalists like Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier, once the largest-circulation black daily in the country. Patiently but insistently, they chiseled away for years at athletic segregation. With Robinson lost to baseball, they focused their energies on Kenny Washington, another UCLA star, who played just before Robinson, in the late 1930s. After the war, Washington was still young enough to compete. And so in 1946, the Los Angeles Rams, and principal owner Dan Reeves, signed him along with another black player, Woody Strode…Shirley Povich, the star Washington Post sportswriter. Povich (a man—Shirley was a male name as often as it was a female name in the early twentieth century) was Jewish and a native of Maine who originally moved to Washington to study law at Georgetown. He often wrote sentences like “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”

It’s impressively racist that Marshall, the Redskins’ founder, stipulated in his will that the foundation that he set up not benefit any cause with anything close to integrationist values. And it’s impressive and refreshing that sports writers felt like they could call him on the racism he exhibited during his lifetime, loudly and repeatedly, and that there wasn’t an unspoken rule his position wasn’t one that had to be treated with neutrality and respect. Because neutrality is a form of respect — it’s not actually a value-free position.

Sportswriters (and arts writers of all forms, too) have always fallen in an interesting space between news reporters in the so-called hard subjects and opinion writers. Perhaps because the subjects are considered light, or because they are ones that are defined by people’s reactions to and opinions on them, reporters and writers in those areas seem to be able to get away with including a lot more judgment of not just the quality of, but the values expressed by, the things they cover. Obviously the stakes are higher in politics: if you don’t like a movie, no one dies, but quite a lot rides on who wins individual Congressional fights, presidential elections, and judicial nominations processes. But folks make decisions in both arenas based on preexisting preferences and information they get from folks they trust. So much of our conversation about the state of political journalism is based on suggesting that reporters shouldn’t be trusted because of secret biases. So why not make those biases transparent so readers can figure out who they trust to frame news and pull out context for them?