“Donald Sterling and George Preston Marshall”

Since he bought the team in 1981, LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling has mismanaged the franchise the way a 3-year-old breaks a toy within minutes of opening the package. However, in recent years, the media has largely ignored him. Why? The team is winning, especially since it acquired Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.

No one talks about having a “bad” owner when the team is winning. No one really cares if he is a racist. Winning is everything. Racism is ignored. But if the team is losing year after stinking year, the team’s owner comes under much closer scrutiny, as Sterling did once upon a time (Sterling’s overall competence was questioned, not his racial views. His teams were diverse, but just not very good).

By contrast, in the early 1960’s, then-Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall came under intense pressure to add an African-American player to the team. He refused, saying he would not do so until the “Harlem Globetrotters allow white players to play.” The Redskins had not played in a post-season game since 1945 (and would not do so until 1971).

Finally, in 1962, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy told Marshall that if the team did not sign a black player, the government would revoke the team’s 30-year lease on the year-old D.C. Stadium (which later became RFK Stadium. The stadium had been paid for by government money and was owned by the D.C. government).

Marshall’s chief response was to make Syracuse’s Ernie Davis, an all-American running back, his number-one draft choice in 1962. Davis refused to play for Marshall, so the owner traded him to Cleveland for wide receiver Bobby Mitchell, who became the first African American football player to play a game for the Redskins. Thus, the Redskins became the Boston Red Sox of the NFL — the last team in its league to integrate.

Had the Redskins been more successful between 1945 and 1962, would the NFL and the federal government have applied as much pressure? Perhaps. Times were changing, albeit very slowly. But the Redskins’ losing finally forced Marshall to change and drew attention to his repulsive, outdated viewpoints about race — and how to build a winning team.


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