Random Acts of Kindness: A long-overdue change

Photo of a crowd carrying signs. One in the front reads "I am not a costume nor a mascot."

Several thousand protesters marched through Minneapolis to TCF Stadium where the Vikings were playing the Washington, DC, football team in 2014. The protesters called for the Washington team to stop using a slur in the name and to stop using the image of a Native American as their mascot. Photo courtesy of Fibonacci Blue / Flickr

Thank God the NFL has come to its senses and has finally pushed the owner of D.C.’s professional football franchise for a name change. I am hearing about an effort to name them the “Red Tails.” But naming a sports team after a Black military unit doesn’t quite work, and it’s just another attempt at political correctness. These gallant servicemen who fought both Jim Crow and the Nazi’s deserve something more fitting than a perpetually losing team.

I like the Washington Warriors, with basically the same colors and a few minor changes to the uniforms, like replacing the racist image of a Native American with a curly W on the helmet. 

I really have no issue with the change because being a longtime Black D.C. resident, I remember growing up in the 50s and 60s with no family and friends rooting for the home team. Why? Because we couldn’t connect with a team of players where no one looked like us. So many of us chose teams that had players we could relate to. My team as a kid was the multi-racial team from Baltimore, the Colts, that had several Black stars and future Hall of Famers like Lenny Moore, Jim Parker, John Mackey, and my favorite, Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb. I think this was because the city of Baltimore had many different ethnic groups living side by side which fostered tolerance and needed its team to reflect that makeup. My first pro game was to see and cheer for those Colts in RFK at a preseason game when a neighbor working on the ground crew walked me in. My friends and I from time to time still talk about the stores and places we couldn’t go to and I am only in my late 60s. It was well known about the team’s owner’s hatred of Black players. But many don’t completely understand why.

It’s easy to forget about the location of your city. D.C. is right on the Mason-Dixon line that divided North from South in this country and supposedly the issue of slavery as well. But keep in mind just across the 14th Street bridge was the Old South with Robert E Lee’s home sitting high on that hill that’s now the hallowed ground of Arlington Cemetery, where Union Army dead were temporarily buried to embarrass the Confederates. So northern Virginia is a stronghold of people still clinging to the romantic ideals of the confederacy and the gateway to the south with Richmond the capital of the Confederacy just 90 miles away. When I graduated from high school Alexandria still had separate school systems for Blacks and whites and was one the last school systems to desegregate. When it finally did, it named the region’s most diverse high school after the segregationist T.C. Williams, which needs to be changed as well.

It’s with this backdrop that the team was moved here from Boston in 1937. Blacks were not welcome at games which led to separate Black sports leagues that sometimes hosted their games at the same venues when the “white” teams were on the road.

But there was an economic reason just as strong. Look at a map: Washington was the southernmost sports franchise in America. 

For broadcast purposes, they were the team of the South, with the largest radio and TV network in sports before cable TV and satellite radio. So people down South grew up following the Skins. The Washington team couldn’t afford the fallout from its Southern fans and advertisers for having Black players, leading to their unholy distinction as the last team in professional football to sign and play a Black player, the just-recently passed Bobby Mitchell when I was about 13. This changed the relationship between the team and Black fans: It was now okay to root for the home team. 

As time went on and new coaches arrived with different opinions and experiences with Black players D.C., with close to a 70 percent Black population, fell in love with the team. They went from the worst team in the league to a contender mainly because of coach Vince Lombardi and my favorite coach, George Allen, who bought not only winning to town but large numbers of Black players we could identify with. 

As a kid living 2 blocks from RFK my friends and I used to sneak off to the team’s practice field behind the old D.C. General Hospital to see the players, who now looked like us, and got to know many of them by name who would let us carry their pads and helmets back to the stadium locker room. 

We became big fans but almost never had the money to go to games. We lived close enough, though, to sit on the front porch and hear the announcements from the game. It was almost like being inside. Later we would make movie money by parking cars in vacant lots nearby or even fitting cars in our backyards. We had found a way to prosper from the team too, but we never understood or discussed the real meaning of our now-beloved team’s name. 

I can’t believe the push back in 2020 by Blacks over the name change. We of all people should understand. But most don’t, and some have placed the addictive fix of pro football fandom over social justice and respect for others’ humanity. I am asking everyone, as a not-so-random act of kindness, to embrace, accept, and respect this long-overdue change.

Some will speak of the long tradition of the football team as a reason to continue to resist the righteous change. We have had a Major League Baseball teams with a longer tradition going back well over a hundred years — the Senators — yet we embraced the new name and team the Nationals. The long-time basketball franchise the Bullets changed their name 3 times. We need to get on board with this change because, in time, everything must and will change!

Wendell Williams is an artist and vendor with Street Sense Media.

Issues |Racism|Sports|Systemic Racism

Region |Baltimore|Maryland|Washington DC

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