It’s time for Washington’s NFL team to hire a black GM
The franchise’s racial history is ugly
Marcus Matthews, a colleague of mine here at The Undefeated, grew up in the D.C. area and he and his friends often talk about how incredible it is that they still bleed burgundy and gold.
“Once you know the whole history of the franchise, we ask ourselves, ‘As a black man, why do I keep supporting this team after everything that’s happened over the years?’ ” he said. “I mean, George Preston Marshall. The last team to integrate. Now Native Americans and the name issue. It just keeps going.”
He is so torn over the sad racial history of Washington’s NFL team he’s not sure he wants the next general manager of the team to be black, “because part of me is worried he’ll be stained professionally and never work again in the NFL.”
That’s where we differ. I believe Washington should hire a person of color to replace Scot McCloughan, who was fired three weeks ago.
From Doug Williams, who’s in-house, to Louis Riddick in the ESPN studio to Joey Clinkscales in Oakland, California, Alonzo Highsmith in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Lionel Vital in Dallas and beyond, there are multiple candidates with the right credentials for the job.
Washington should hire one of them, because nowhere in North American professional sports would naming a black man as a franchise’s primary decision maker carry more weight or have the potential to be as historically healing than in the District, Maryland and Virginia, where resentment runs decades deep and change comes embarrassingly slow.
“They keep doing things to tell us we shouldn’t be fans,” Matthews said. “But we keep buying in. Were we that brainwashed during our adolescence, when they actually won Super Bowls, to believe things were going to be like that again one day? I don’t know.”
One thing we do know is that when it comes to the NFL team that purports to represent the nation’s capital, black Washington’s capacity to forgive is downright New Testament. Consider just a few instances from the team’s history:
• When the franchise’s original owner, George Preston Marshall, was pressed on why he refused to integrate his team, he said, “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” He marketed his franchise as “The Team of the South,” with radio broadcast rights in major markets south of the Mason-Dixon line. And when he died in 1969, most of his estate went to a foundation with instructions not to spend money to support integration.
• The fight song’s chorus, “Fight for Old D.C.,” became “Fight for Old Dixie” between 1959-1961, widely seen as a retort to those demanding that the team field black players. “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for [Washington], integrated their end zone three times yesterday,” Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich famously wrote in 1960. The team’s band would go on to play “Dixie” until 1965, three years after its first black player joined the team.
• Jack Kent Cooke professionally emasculated Bobby Mitchell, a Hall of Fame wide receiver and the courageous soul who integrated that roster in 1962. All Mitchell wanted from the former owner was to be considered for the team’s general manager job after all the years he’d put in since Vince Lombardi first hired him as a scout. But Cooke never saw him as anything more than a ceremonial front-office official — a slight Mitchell called a “deep hurt” when he retired in 2003.
• Owner Dan Snyder routinely made a sham of the Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority head-coaching candidate before making a hiring decision. He once OK’d a mock interview with defensive backs coach Jerry Gray after Mike Shanahan had already agreed to become the team’s next coach.
• Believe it or not, the American Nazi Party marched in front of RFK Stadium in 1961 with swastika armbands on their sleeves and placards that urged Marshall to keep the boys in uniform “white.”
Marshall couldn’t be shamed into desegregating the team by Povich or even Sam Lacy, the legendary sportswriter for the Baltimore Afro-American, who called the team the “lone wolf in lily-whiteism,” and Marshall himself “the one operator in the whole structure of major-league sports who has openly flouted his distaste for tan athletes.”
Indeed, Marshall only integrated the team when Stewart Udall, the secretary of the interior under President Kennedy, threatened to deny it the use of D.C. Stadium, then under construction, because it would be located within the national park system.
The franchise’s tone-deafness has continued in many ways. Four years ago, when the team first started reacting to the renewed push to change its name, team president Bruce Allen brought in George Allen, his brother and the other son of the late legendary coach who took the franchise to its first Super Bowl, as a consultant. George Allen, the former Virginia senator, was infamous for slurring an East Indian American at a campaign rally and once keeping a noose and Confederate flag in his law office.
Three years ago, Washington was scheduled to be one of 20 NFL teams to host a screening for Ross Greenburg’s EPIX documentary, Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football, about the four players who broke pro football’s color barrier in 1946.
The only holdup was finding a theater close to the team’s practice facility in Ashburn, Virginia, so current players could attend in addition to season-ticket subscribers and former players. The Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys held in-stadium screenings for more than 25,000 people. This just made cultural sense for Washington, which was near T.C. Williams High School, the inspiration for Remember the Titans, and the home of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocate for minority hiring in the NFL.
But the team pulled the plug. Its official stance: It had screened Draft Day, starring Kevin Costner, several months earlier. But a person intimately familiar with the project, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the team wanted no part in promoting it during the height of the name-change controversy. Why? Because Marshall is shown in the film to have conspired with Chicago’s George Halas and other owners to keep African-Americans out of the game during the 1933 NFL owners meetings. Indeed, Forgotten Four makes a good case that Marshall was the main reason a generation of African-Americans were forbidden to play for any NFL team.
“I don’t know why they’re so afraid of their past. I’m not,” said Jordan Wright, the granddaughter of George Preston Marshall. Speaking from her home in Alexandria, Virginia, she repeatedly mentioned the four-word mantra she uses to deal with her grandfather’s complicated legacy.
“Do the right thing,” she said, in an echo of Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 film. “Do the right thing when it comes to moving on from their past, do the right thing with the name and change it. Just go forward with a clean conscience and recognize that tens of thousands of people and their offspring are offended and what’s still lingering is this awful loss of a people’s dignity.”
She still has to deal with her grandfather’s history. There’s a large memorial to him outside RFK Stadium and several years ago she came up with a $20,000 estimate to transport it to Romney, Virginia, where Marshall is buried. Virginia Tech was all set to be a benefactor, she said, “when someone called and said, ‘Somebody told us your grandfather was a racist.’ ” Then city officials from Romney reneged on an agreement to give the memorial a prime location, telling Wright she could have it put somewhere alongside the cemetery road where Marshall is buried.
Wright said her grandfather’s avowed stance on segregation never colored her own life. The team’s stance was a business decision not to alienate its Southern fan base.
“That’s not how I was raised, saying the things he said and did at times,” she said. “Look, it was a very racist, segregated time. But at some point it doesn’t serve any purpose to keep going back, returning to the site of the crash. History is history. It’s been done.”
Mitchell is also ready for bygones to be bygones. He is 81 today and said he’s less sore now about how Cooke treated him over the years. “In fact, the only people bothered now are the ones who talk about it,” he said. “That was just people speaking for me. Because I understood, I came from the ground up.”
His one rabbi in the organization, the one man who believed in him as a genuine evaluator of talent was Vince Lombardi, he says now. “When he died, it was over,” Mitchell said.
Washington briefly had a black head coach once. After Norv Turner was fired near the end of 2000, Terry Robiskie held the interim title for 28 days and three games. But he was merely a placeholder for an established name — read: old and white — the coach hired in 2001, Marty Schottenheimer.
Gray never was a real candidate for the job in 2009. Two former team officials said Shanahan already had the job, and the team was merely waiting for the season to end so they could fire Jim Zorn and have an official press conference.
“That was a mistake on my part to even take the interview,” said Gray, who has been the defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings since 2014. “If I can look back now, I’d say no. I never had a good feeling about the whole thing. I had this inner struggle telling me the situation wasn’t good.”
The most depressing part about that sham of a process? Gray found out for the first time that Shanahan already was sealed and delivered when I called him.
Black Washington has so many reasons to be angry. Yet despite a racist original owner, despite people of color continually being marginalized in the front office and on the sidelines, they are still the most resilient, what’s-done-is-done group of fans anywhere. They deserve the best qualified general manager candidate, and many of those candidates are African-Americans.
So as a pro bono service, I offer these candidates for the team’s perusal. If the owner or team president don’t speak to or interview them – regardless of the Rooney Rule – then it’s fair to wonder how much of its history is really behind it.
Doug Williams worked as a personnel executive with Tampa Bay for four years and with Washington since 2014. As the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl – for Washington – he should be a serious internal candidate.
Louis Riddick worked in Washington for eight years, the last three as the director of pro personnel, a job he also held in Philadelphia until 2013. Heck, he played racquetball with Snyder, developed not only a good working relationship with the owner but a decent personal relationship with him. His knowledge and insight on ESPN the past three years would be missed, but he’d be a good hire.
Lake Dawson was vice president of football operations for the Titans between 2011 and 2015. He’s now a scout in Cleveland.
Martin Mayhew, a former player on Joe Gibbs’ last Super Bowl team, has worked as a general manager in Detroit and as director of football operations for the Giants. He’s currently a senior personnel executive with the San Francisco 49ers.
Joey Clinkscales has been the Oakland Raiders’ director of player personnel since 2012.
Morocco Brown, who worked for six years in Washington, served as the Cleveland Browns’ vice president of player personnel before he was part of a purge. He deserves another shot.
Alonzo Highsmith has been a senior personnel executive for the Green Bay Packers since 2012 after working for them as a scout for 13 years. He’s paid his dues more than anyone.
Lionel Vital, a former Atlanta Falcons director of player personnel, now works in the scouting department for the Cowboys.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few. But the point is there are plenty of capable black candidates who shouldn’t have to rely on the Rooney Rule for an interview.
Like George Preston Marshall’s granddaughter said, it’s time to the do the right thing.