My late father, a D.C. police officer from the 1940s to the mid-’60s, despised the Washington Redskins.
He’d fume repeatedly about how the team was the last in the NFL to hire a Black player – Bobby Mitchell – because of its segregationist founder and owner George Preston Marshall.
If I heard Joseph Chesley Sr. say it once, I heard it a thousand times. (Marshall finally caved after federal officials threatened to prevent the team from playing in D.C. Stadium, now RFK, which was on federal property. Mitchell, already a pro with the Cleveland Browns, joined the team in 1962.)
My dad also said Redskins quarterbacks wouldn’t throw to Mitchell and other black receivers initially, until local sportswriters openly criticized the QBs for it. He told me he witnessed the slight himself while on patrol during games.
Maybe that last story was apocryphal. I’ve tried finding news accounts of such a controversy without success, though that’s not something my father would’ve lied about.
What I do know is this: The franchise has had a less-than-stellar reputation with African- and Native Americans over its long tenure – the latter because of its offensive team moniker.
Yet it’s a complicated history, too: The team once featured Doug Williams, who in 1988 became the first Black QB to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. He’s now a senior vice president in the team’s front office.
So I wonder what my father would say about the Skins’ decision last week to finally retire Mitchell’s uniform, No. 49, shortly after the Hall of Famer died in April.
The 84-year-old Mitchell spent a whopping 40 years with the organization, both on the field and in the front office. It’s just the second time a Washington player had his number retired; Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh’s No. 33 is the other.
I believe my father would shake Mitchell’s hand in heaven. And then he’d tell the star receiver, executive and classy individual: Too little, too late, too ham-handed.
Consider this: The team’s decision comes amid national upheaval following the videotaped death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in police custody. Symbolic gestures that should’ve taken place ages ago are happening now, including the removal of Confederate monuments around Virginia.
That a tidal wave of protests formed the backdrop as Mitchell finally got his due speaks poorly of Redskins management, including oft-maligned current owner Daniel Snyder. The team is a moneymaker as an organization, but it’s been mediocre on the field since Snyder bought it in 1999. His PR moves are less than stellar.
The team also announced it was renaming the lower level in FedEx Field in Landover, Md., the team’s current home, in Mitchell’s honor – but neglected to say in the news release that it was bumping Marshall’s name from that section. I mean, why not just admit it?
The day before the Skins announced Mitchell’s honor, the entity that now runs aging RFK Stadium removed a statue of Marshall outside the site.
“This symbol of a person who didn’t believe all men and women were created equal and who actually worked against integration,” Events DC said in a statement, “is counter to all that we as people, a city, and nation represent. We believe that injustice and inequality of all forms is reprehensible and we are firmly committed to confronting unequal treatment and working together toward healing our city and country.”
Just goes to show you that sports teams aren’t the only ones slow to change, even in the face of what’s indefensible.
I wondered if this newfound wokeness on the Skins’ part meant it would also bury its racist moniker. Many Native Americans call it a slur. I agree, though a 2016 poll by The Washington Post found that nine in 10 Native Americans said they’re not offended by the name.
Snyder has said he’ll “never change the name” – but maybe some renewed soul-searching is in order. I left messages for team spokespersons this week, but got no reply.
Back to Mitchell. The belated decision to honor him would be stupefying on practically any other major league franchise. This man was a trailblazer. He joined a team that was one of a few south of the Mason-Dixon line at the time, in a nation grappling with the civil rights movement.
Here’s something often overlooked about Mitchell’s playing days: When he retired after the 1968 season, he was No. 2 in all-purpose yards for a career — rushing, receiving, and returns of kickoffs and punts. His greatness was overshadowed by the fact he broke the color barrier for the NFL’s last racial holdout.
Mitchell entered the Hall of Fame in 1983. He remained in the team’s front office until 2002. Snyder, in the team’s news release, called him “one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.” Brig Owens, a former Redskins safety who played several seasons with Mitchell, said he “was our Jackie Robinson.”
Then why did it take so long?
Nationwide protests shouldn’t have occurred before Bobby Mitchell got his due.
I know my father would agree.