Mark Hebscher on why Lou Marsh’s name must be removed from Canada’s top athletic award right now

What the Lou Marsh Trophy looks like—this one awarded in 2017 to Toronto native Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds..

My grandfather once told me he would never buy the Toronto Star because it had an anti-Israel bias, and a history of racism. He explained how a guy named Lou Marsh—a sportswriter who also became the newspaper’s sports editor for the last five years of his life—regularly put down minorities in his widely read columns.  

Marsh was opposed to a boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics because he felt that the whole matter of Nazi antisemitism was an internal matter for Germans, and of no concern to Canada. He called the mistreatment of Jewish people “overblown.”

And yet, during this time, Star correspondent Matthew Halton reported on how Germans were persecuting Jews and taking away their basic human rights. Lou Marsh was opposed to a boycott, even though other prominent sportswriters didn’t want Canada sending a team to help Hitler’s propaganda machine.  

Several athletes from around the world did boycott the Games in protest of the Nazis. Two of them were Jewish Canadians: boxers Sammy Luftspring (who Marsh had once called “an aggressive Jew boy”) and Norman “Baby Yack” Yakubowitz opted to go to Barcelona for the People’s Olympiad. (The event was cancelled on the morning of the opening ceremonies because of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.)

Even though Marsh died at age 57 in March 1936, five months before the Olympics transpired that year, few people were aware of his racist musings—and even fewer paid attention as the years went on.

But now, something must be done about the name that adorns the award given to the top athlete in Canada every year by the Toronto Star.

The call to change the trophy’s name has gotten much louder in November 2021, thanks to TSN broadcaster Gord Miller:

As part of a recent thread of tweets, Miller highlighted a piece from Western University professor Janice Forsyth about how Marsh wrote terrible things about minorities.

In light of this information, perhaps we should seriously think about naming the trophy after someone else.

It would be the right thing to do.

I’ve also suggested dropping the name for many years—in print and on my podcast. But, because Gord Miller has over 250,000 social media followers, the hundreds of incensed replies further confirmed how Lou Marsh’s backstory remains obscure to most.

Marsh was an excellent amateur athlete in his day. Later, he became a famous sportswriter, who often moonlighted as a boxing, football and hockey referee. He also had a very cozy relationship with the Canadian Olympic Committee, and it wasn’t uncommon for such men to receive “favourable treatment” by these organizations in return for some publicity in his column. 

He even helped train the great indigenous runner and 1908 Boston Marathon winner Tom Longboat, who he had a love-hate relationship with. Because even when Longboat won, Marsh would somehow find a way to congratulate his trainers, rather than the runner himself. Marsh would often mention Longboat by name once or twice in his stories—then used “The Indian” or “The Onandaga” or “Heap Big Indian” when referring to him during the rest of the article.  

I feel it’s necessary to discuss context here. A century ago, racism and antisemitism were often perpetuated by popular writers, like Lou Marsh. His constant use of racial stereotyping went a long way in negatively influencing his many readers that minorities were subhuman, not worthy of respect, and OK to be ridiculed. 

Marsh wrote a great deal about Longboat and his many marathon battles. One came against the Italian Dorando Pietri, whom Marsh had once described as “an olive-hued macaroni eater.”

In a Star report published on Jan. 4, 1909, Marsh wrote this to describe Longboat about to overtake Dorando late in the race:

“The imperturbable Indian was right there, and smiling like a coon in a watermelon patch. The melon was ripe for picking.” 

The sportswriter could be a nasty name-caller as well. 

”I saw Mrs. Longboat today,” he wrote after the race. “She is as fat as butter”. 

And after Longboat refused to follow the training methods set out by his manager, Marsh wrote this on Jan. 13, 1909: “Longboat must be handled, not treated.” 

Two days later: “Chances are that Longboat will wind up in a circus.” 

This was a constant theme in Marsh’s columns. Longboat was treated more like a racehorse or a circus animal than a human being: “The original dummy, wily, unpredictable, as hard to train as a leopard.” (He never wrote about a white athlete in those terms.)

Because it’s been 85 years since Marsh died, and the Toronto Star immediately put his name on a trophy given to the best athlete in Canada, he’s become synonymous with athletic excellence, and therefore revered. But the facts are overwhelming.

Marsh doesn’t deserve to have his name on such a prestigious award. Not after the way he mistreated people in print all those years, and led many to believe that intolerance and bigotry were alright, as long as it helped sell newspapers.  

My suggestion is simple enough. Call it the Terry Fox Trophy.

And that way, we’ll be reminded of a courageous, uplifting, extremely Canadian athlete—rather than a narrow-minded bigot who was constantly putting people down.

MORE FROM HEBSY: Who was the greatest Jewish athlete of all time? Ida Schnall

Mark Hebscher is the host of the Toronto-based weekly podcast Hebsy on Sports and the author of The Greatest Athlete (You’ve Never Heard Of).