Marshall's gone but NFL shows again it hasn't forgotten his money-making legacy
You’ve got to hand it to the NFL. It may fumble the ball when it comes to player discipline, minority hiring, and social justice, but it remains the master of what the league seems to value most. Nobody knows how to make a buck better than the National Football League.
We were reminded of that again this week when a team that still insists on calling itself the “Redskins’’ announced it was removing the name of the team’s founder, avowed racist George Preston Marshall, from its Ring of Honor at FedEx Field and wiping his name off the team’s history wall outside the locker room at its practice facility.
Those moves came on the heels of the owners of the old RFK Stadium, the Redskins’ former home, tearing down a statue of Marshall, who was not only the last NFL owner to integrate his team but only did so after the Secretary of the Interior under President John F. Kennedy threatened to cancel the team’s lease at RFK if he refused to hire a black player.
At the same time, the obviously conflicted Redskins continue to hold fast to one of the most controversial nicknames in sports because, frankly, its present owner believes “Redskins’’ still sells, which judging by merchandising figures it does.
While all this was going on, swirling in the background was their head coach, Ron Rivera, saying he would support a player's right to take a knee during the National Anthem to voice his demand for social justice while his defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, announced he favored President Trump, who said he will not watch NFL games if players kneel during the Anthem.
Del Rio may have some explaining to do when his players, who are 70 percent African-American, finally show up. Simply telling them to kiss his ass, as Del Rio suggested his social media critics do this week, seems unlikely to fly. Or to conform to his boss Rivera’s stance on the matter.
Of course, that assumes there even are any players around to kneel, which remains in considerable doubt as coronavirus raged through the South, Southwest and California this week, spiking to record numbers at the same time the NFL and other professional team sports were trying to figure out how to play games this year.
One way, of course, is to play without paying customers in the stands, as is the case in European soccer and Asian professional baseball at the moment. Leave it to the NFL to find a way to turn a profit on even that sad possibility.
Word has leaked that even if fans are somehow allowed inside, NFL teams will keep at least the first six rows of seats in their stadiums empty and covered with a tarp to create social distancing between fan and athlete. Some might see that as a sales problem. The league sees it as a marketing opportunity. Reportedly it plans to sell advertising space on those tarps.
Who said these guys can’t problem solve?
They can’t figure out how to get their season started. They can’t figure out how to get on the same page when it comes to increasing minority job opportunities in management. They can’t come up with a uniform discipline policy or even a clear understanding of pass interference, and they seem unable to muster a cohesive message about how teams will support players demanding the right to express their insistence on social change.
But they damn sure know how to turn an empty seat into advertising dollars.
The Redskins’ conflicted reaction this week to its own racist history and the former owner who made it the last NFL team to integrate when Marshall reluctantly traded for future Hall-of-Famer Bobby Mitchell in 1962, seems a shining example of the NFL’s ongoing missteps when it comes to major issues that don’t involve salesmanship. Present owner Daniel Snyder erases all references to the man who founded his team while rejecting calls to change its nickname, which many find far more racially insensitive than a statue or Marshall’s name on a plaque.
This overall lack of corporate consistency has caused the NFL many embarrassments in recent years in matters of discipline, race relations and hiring practices, but there remains one thing the league is totally adept at. If there’s a way to make a buck, even off a pandemic, it will find a way to do it.
This fall, the NFL may go on without fans or mention of one of its most famous owners, but what will remain is what Marshall was most revered for among his peers. George Preston Marshall knew how to make a buck in pro football. Once again this week, the league showed it won’t forget that part of his legacy.