Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, has resisted mounting public pressure to change his team’s wince-inducing nickname.
“Redskins,” Snyder insists, is not a racist epithet, but rather a term of endearment recognizing the Native American head coach and four Native American players who were associated with the franchise when original owner George Preston Marshall changed their nickname from the Braves in 1933.
In a March letter addressed to season-ticket holders, Snyder provided his version of a history lesson.
“As some of you may know,” he wrote, “our team began 81 years ago — in 1932 — with the name ‘Boston Braves.’ The following year, the franchise name was changed to the ‘Boston Redskins.’ On that inaugural Redskins team, four players and our coach were Native Americans. The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, an honor.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Olympian
There is only one problem with Snyder’s interpretation of the 1933 name change.
The misnomer that Marshall chose Redskins to “honor” the coach and four players was refuted by none other than George Preston Marshall.
On July 2, 1933, the day the Braves officially announced they henceforth would be known as the Redskins, Marshall told the Associated Press that the name change was made in conjunction with the team’s relocation from Braves Field in Boston to Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox.
“So much confusion has been caused by our team wearing the same name as the Boston National League Baseball Club that a change appeared to be absolutely necessary,” Marshall said. “The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins.”
A shrewd businessman and something of a visionary about the fledgling league’s potential to appeal to a national audience, Marshall made a simple marketing decision: Two Boston teams calling themselves the Braves was one too many, and Redskins suggested a Fenway Park tie with the Red Sox while enabling them to keep their Native American motif.
As for Lone Star Dietz, the Redskins’ coach in 1933, his real name was William Henry Dietz. There is evidence — and it’s overwhelming — that Dietz reinvented himself as a Native American, much the way Dick Whitman, on the AMC television series “Mad Men,” took on the identity of Don Draper.
Washington State fans might recognize Dietz as the coach who led the Cougars to a 14-0 victory over Brown in the 1916 Rose Bowl. Despite his success — Dietz’s third and final season at WSU, in 1917, found the Cougars finishing 6-0-1 — he ditched Pullman because the feds were on to his fake identity.
Agents caught up to Dietz in California and transported him to Spokane, where he faced trial on violating the Selective Service Act. Prosecutors charged he had falsely registered as a “non-citizen Indian of the U.S.”
In other words, the government believed Dietz to be a draft dodger who registered as a “non-citizen” to avoid serving in World War I.
A 1919 trial ended with a hung jury. A second trial was avoided when Dietz pleaded no contest. He served 30 days in the Spokane County Jail.
Dietz’s life was fascinating — it’s the stuff of a great movie — and the question of how he changed his identity is as complex as the question of why. This much is certain: He was born in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, to German parents.
Dietz claimed he was the child of Oglala Sioux parents who raised him on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He derived his “Lone Star” identity, apparently, from James One Star, an Oglala man who disappeared in 1894.
Dietz died destitute in 1964, 22 years after his last season as the football coach at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. Friends had to raise the money for his headstone, which reads: “William ‘Lone Star’ Dietz, born in South Dakota.’ ”
The hoax endures.
Let’s recap: NFL owner Dan Snyder won’t budge on changing the Redskins nickname. He won’t budge, he says, because the nickname was conceived to honor Native Americans, even though the original owner who came up with the nickname acknowledged he chose it to alleviate brand-name confusion, and not to pay tribute to a supposed Native American coach who wasn’t, in fact, a Native American.
The history behind the most inappropriate nickname in sports is a lie about a lie.
Make of that what you will.