While I was visiting my family and friends last week in Maryland, I had a drink with my cousin, we’ll call her V. First, I should mention that V and I, while always close in age (I am only a little over a year older than her), have always struggled to find common ground and be close in relation. Our families lived together for a few of our preteen years and we all have our theory as to why V and I didn’t grow into a “best friends” sibling relationship. Some say that we were so close in age, we were too competitive. My theory is that we really are not similar in personality. We don’t even compliment each other’s personality. Do I love V? Yes. Do I like spending time with her? Yes. Would I do almost anything for her? Yes. But it is more because we’re family and less because of the nature of our relationship.
V was always better at sports than me. She could always beat me in a race in the pool, outshine me on the putt putt golf course, and downright embarrass me on a volleyball court or a softball field. I never proclaimed to be very good at anything sports-related when I was a kid. That’s pretty much why I ran track in high school—it doesn’t take a lot to know how to run. Later, I tried my hand at soccer, and was OK, but I am by no means a natural athlete, though, I think I’m moderately good at everything but superior at absolutely nothing. But I digress. V was good at a lot of things. Better than me and better than her younger sister. She also was the oldest daughter of a sports fanatic father. My uncle was a diehard sports fan. When our families moved in with each other when I was nine, I entered a world that I knew nothing about—a world where you could go to sporting events, where you could spend hours in front of a TV watching grown men in uniforms run around and hit each other. Where teams had songs! I learned the Redskins’ fight song in 1990 and never looked back.
So V and I always had one thing in common: we were Redskins fans, through and through. And we hate the Cowboys. We hate them on this visceral level, where it disgusts us when we find a DC Native who is actually a Cowboys fan! And there are a lot of them. One of my friends, and old managers at a bar I worked at in College Park, is a Cowboys fan. So is another friend I went to college with and she grew up in Potomac, right next door to Washington. I brought this up to V during out happy hour outing and she had an answer for me that I didn’t expect, or like.
I’m going to take this opportunity to digress one more time. While V’s sports fan origins were more traditional than mine—she grew up with a dad who basically groomed her to be a son when it came to sports, mine was out of sheer will and effort. As a pre-teen, seeing V and her dad enjoy all these things together, seeing how important sports were to so many people, I could find no better use of my own time than to learn as much as possible, as quick as possible. I soon adopted the Mets as my baseball team (that’s actually a very long story) and St. John’s as my college basketball team. But the Skins were first. My fervor for sports started with my desire to fit in. My desire to be like everyone else with a dad who took them to baseball games. It also grew out of my passion for learning. When I was a kid, I would go through phases, clouds, dinosaurs, bugs, you name it, I knew everything there was to know about it. It was all about mastering something. The thing about sports is that it is an ever-changing landscape. And that intrigued me. So what I lacked in a natural starting point, I made up for in ridiculous effort and undeniable passion for the subject. So, I tended to know a lot. I know a lot of stats, and I know a lot of history. I know a lot that you learn from books. And since I’ve been watching sports now for two decades, I now also know a lot that you learn from watching. So it always surprises me when someone knows something about sports that I was completely oblivious to.
Ok, back to the story. So, V tells me that there are a ton of Cowboy fans in the DC area because…the Skins are racist. Ok, I already knew that. I mean, their team name is the REDSKINS. An old boyfriend of mine used to say that they were the most racist team in all of sports. I defended them saying it was an old relic of a name and clearly the nations capital was not racist. I was not racist. But then V told me, and it made me want to puke.
I knew that integration in sports was tricky. We all heard the stories about how awful minority athletes had it. But what I didn’t know was that the Redskins were the last football team to integrate. They were the last TEAM to integrate—that includes all other major professional sports leagues—baseball, basketball, and even hockey! The process for the league started in the 40’s, but the Redskins did not integrate their roster until 1962. The Redskins founder and owner (Marshall) stood his ground for a very long time. As a matter of fact, when the Redskins were founded, they were the only team below the Mason-Dixon line (Maryland’s northern border with Pennsylvania is the line—hence what many believe created Maryland’s nickname as the “old line state”). The Redskins even faced charges if they did not integrate in accordance with federal mandates.
But much to Marshall’s dismay, in the late 50’s and early 60’s, DC started to become predominantly African-American. Things were heating up with the Civil Rights movement taking off, and Marshall stood firm in fighting to keep the segregated DC he knew and loved, any way he knew how. During this time, in 1960, the Dallas Cowboys joined the NFL as an expansion team. Those who were unhappy with the Redskins’ refusal to integrate defected to the rival Cowboys. And their children are now in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and having little Cowboy fan kids of their own. Many of them don’t even know why they grew up Cowboy fans—they just know that they are, and that they don’t like the Redskins.
Sports Illustrated has called the rivalry between the two teams as the greatest in all of the NFL. While that title may have faded since the two teams are rarely good at the same time anymore, very few teams can attribute their rivalry to such historic, albeit horrible roots.
I am a Redskins fan. So is V. We grew up Redskins fans, unaware of the dark history. I am ashamed of the team’s history, but remain understanding that it was a different time. And I could not be happier that that time no longer exists. I don’t know if I can ever, ever, not hate the Cowboys, but maybe I can understand their fans a little better now.
As for me and V, I love her like you love a sister. And I love her even more because the more I think about it, the more I attribute my love of sports to my time growing up with her. And the time that we spend together now, as adults, is much different than the time that we spent together as children. We have a sort of mutual respect for each other and the fact that we’re different. But the one thing that brings us together time and time again, is sports. Just another reason why sports is so important to me. Without it, I would have a totally different relationship with so many people in my life. And without the Redskins, I would not have gotten into sports as early as I did. So, while the Redskins have a history that no fan should ever be proud of, I can never let that get in the way of the enormous gift they’ve given me.