"The N.F.L. Needs More Than a Song," we were reminded Wednesday by the headline above an on-point guest op-ed column in The New York Times by former pro football wide receiver Donte Stallworth.
He was making an important point: The National Football League needs to do far more to address Black concerns than just end its half-century of look-the-other-wayism by having all NFL stadiums follow the playing of the national anthem with the symbolically celebrated Black anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." And he's right.
But today, we're going to take a fresh look at the little-known history of another song the NFL definitely doesn't need any more! It's the song that was celebrated at top-lung singing decibel in only one of its stadiums – the one where my home team's fans sang it lustily after every home team score. And none ever thought, as they sang, about an unarguable truth I'd long written about: Our team's nickname is the dictionary definition of racism – it's only about skin color. Everyone just sang:
"Hail to the Redskins!"
There's a back story behind the song's history that is so little-known that Donte Stallworth and his teammates probably never knew it when they played in Redskin uniforms. And for sure, neither did their fans. Yet it is a tale of wheeler-dealer scheming that is both big-biz bizarre and show-biz funny (as if created by the team of William Shakespeare, Woody Allen and Monty Python).
Hit pause: The good news is we'd better move fast. In just a few weeks we are likely to learn that this song will probably never be sung again in an NFL stadium, with its old lyrics.
Hit rewind: Back in the 1950s, Washington's team was owned by a very rich racist, George Preston Marshall. The last NFL team owner to sign a Black player was also the first and only one to create a team band. Band director Barnee Breeskin wrote the song and Marshall's wife, onetime silent screen star Corinne Mae Griffith, wrote the lyrics to "Hail to the Redskins."
Back then, Washington was the NFL's southernmost city, so by NFL agreement, Marshall controlled TV rights to broadcast Redskin games throughout the South. And when Texas oilman Clint Murchison Jr. tried to create a Dallas NFL team, Marshall blocked Dallas' entry so he could keep all that TV money.
Murchison countered by hiring a fixer as his general manager, a perfectly-named Texan – Tex Schramm (no relation to me; his clan added that second "m" to our common surname). Schramm's opening came when Marshall cluelessly fired his band director, never realizing Breeskin (not Marshall) owned the Redskins' song copyright. Well, Breeskin tipped off Tex Schramm's gang, and for a mere $2,500 Murchison bought the rights to the Redskins' song. And he gave Marshall the obvious ultimatum: Approve a Dallas NFL team, or you'll never again play "Hail to the Redskins" in his own stadium!
Marshall briefly tested his clout: At a 1960 NFL dinner meeting at Miami Beach's Kenilworth Hotel, he sent an accordion player to serenade his pal, Chicago Bears' powerful owner George Halas with "Hail to the Redskins!" (signaling he'll still veto a Dallas entry and expected his pal's support). Alas, Halas sent the accordionist back to play "The Eyes of Texas." Whoa! Roped and tied, Marshall gave and got: gave Dallas its Cowboys, got Washington the rights to its own fight song.
Fast-forward: As a suburban Washington rich kid, Dan Snyder was always thrilled to sing "Hail to the Redskins." As a multimillionaire, Snyder bought his heroes. As Redskins owner, in 2013, Snyder famously proclaimed he'd never change the name: "NEVER -- you can use caps!"
But today we are living in the post-NEVER age. The USA is woke racially, followed by the NFL. But even football can be hardball. Fellow NFL owners pressured Snyder to change his team's nickname. Then it got tougher: Fellow corporate billionaires did too. Corporate partner FedEx (as in Washington's FedEx Field) virtually demand it. So did Nike, Pepsi and more. Snyder announced he is "reviewing" a name change. Translation: Any week now, it will happen.
So what will Washington become? While there are few new nicknames, many are only lightly used, relatively un-nicked. Wanting a total departure from native Americana, Snyder might travel the simple alliteration trail: Washington Warriors?
Or he might try a new-age, no mascot big label (a la Miami Heat): Washington Freedom?
Or he might consult you. Snyder may ask all Americans to suggest something symbolic that Washington really means to you. And you may come up with a special nickname that retro-fits easily into Barnee Breeskin's old fight song groove: "Hail, Washington Red-Tape?"
Back to your think pad.
About The Writer
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.
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