Washington, D.C. is simultaneously the home of our nation’s first minority President and the team with the most racially insensitive name in sports.
Most teams are named after fearsome mammals, majestic birds and even hosiery. It’s harmless, often goofy and occasionally illogical. (Seriously, the Utah Jazz? That’s like naming a team the Miami Snow.) Taking the name of an ethnic group, however, is in questionable taste, which is why teams named after Native Americans have come under fire. Many defending names like “Indians” insist they are honoring those who originally settled the land. Perhaps, but I describe it as honoring those who were slaughtered and driven from that land. Native Americans have higher levels of poverty and unemployment than any group in the United States, a situation that is never addressed in national politics, but hey, being honored as a mascot is one helluva consolation prize!
Reasonable minds can disagree on whether names like Indians, Braves and Chiefs are benign. However, there is no reasonable defense for “Redskins.” It’s an offensive term. That’s not my opinion – it’s Merriam-Webster’s. The name evokes crude early Westerns depicting bloodthirsty savages on the warpath indiscriminately scalping white men, then speaking crude English while they smoke-um peace pipe, like in the original lyrics of the team’s fight song, “Hail to the Redskins:” “Scalp ‘em, swamp ‘em, we will take ‘em! Big score! Read ‘em, weep ‘em, touchdown – we want heap more!”
Few people defend the name itself. They know that if it were proposed for a new franchise, the name would be rejected in half a second as inappropriate. Instead, they make what I call the “it’s too much bother to make a simple change that will correct a racist act” argument. Defenders point to polls showing a majority, even of Native Americans, are not troubled by the name; apparently I missed the memo that announced we had started putting racism up for a vote. They argue that the name is tradition, which reminds me of the old defense of the Confederate flag: “It’s heritage, not hatred.”
Defenders also point to Notre Dame’s use of “the Fighting Irish” as an example of why using an ethnic group as a team name is acceptable. But since the Irish have been integrated into American society, the name projects success, not oppression. Many Irish walk the South Bend campus and don the Notre Dame football uniform – heck, their current coach is an Irish-American named Kelly – while the number of Native Americans who will be blocking for Robert Griffin III this season equals the number of Super Bowls Washington has won since Griffin was out of diapers: zero.
Current team owner Daniel Snyder, however, is standing firm. “We’ll never change the name,” he says. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
Mr. Snyder should take a longer look at his team’s ignominious history. The Washington football team was founded in 1932, and owned until his death in 1969, by George Preston Marshall, an avowed racist. Again, this is not my opinion, it’s from Marshall’s will, which left instructions that none of his Marshall Foundation money could be used “for any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration.” One of the prime instigators behind the absence of African-Americans in the National Football League until the late 1940s, Marshall was the last NFL owner to allow a black player on his team’s roster and only did so then (1962) under the threat of civil rights action by the Kennedy Administration.
Snyder’s campaign hit a low point in May when his TV show Redskin Nation interviewed a Maryland tow-truck driver named Chief Dodson, who vigorously defended the honor of the Redskins name while claiming to be “a full-blooded American Inuit chief originally from the Aleutian Tribes of Alaska.” The sports website Deadspin quickly unmasked Dodson as someone who “is neither a full-blooded American Inuit nor a chief in any formal sense of the term” (“Chief” is apparently a self-applied nickname), is stunningly ignorant of the tribe’s culture (in fact, Inuits don’t consider themselves Indians) and has a long criminal record to boot. (Fun fact: the “Chief’s” middle name is the name of the Redskins’ most heated rival: Dallas.)
Last week, Slate and Mother Jones announced that they would no longer use the name “Redskins.” Since neither site writes much about the NFL, the gesture is merely a token one; it would have much greater impact coming from the hometown Washington Post. That would not be unprecedented. In the days of the segregated Redskins, Post sportswriter Shirley Povich frequently mocked them, writing zingers like, ”Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”
My hometown, Ossining, NY, went through this controversy. Founded in 1813, the village took the name Sing Sing after the Sint Sinck tribe that originally settled there. By the turn of the 20th century, however, the name Sing Sing evoked only the infamous prison, and the assumption that manufactured goods stamped “Made in Sing Sing” had been produced by prisoners had a harmful effect on local businesses. So in 1901, saddled with a name with negative ramifications, the village did the logical thing: It changed its name.
For nearly 75 years, the school’s sports teams were named the Indians, but in 2002, following a request from the state education commissioner, the village Board of Education voted to eliminate it. The decision caused an immediate stir, at least partly because of the heavy-handed way the Board handled the matter – nobody likes being told that something they have supported all their life is racist – but within a couple of years the debate became moot.
When the controversy first arose, I was agnostic. I understood the objection, but since few people cared, what was the harm? My mind changed after reading an unrelated article about how, in the 1950s, local PTAs in my county had still been using minstrel shows as fund raisers. I was appalled. I had grown up in the 1950s, attended integrated schools then with a substantial African-American population, and wondered how in the hell that had been acceptable? Then I realized that the growing awareness of racism during the 1950s and the increasing power of the civil-rights movement was exactly why minstrel shows disappeared. I began to see the wearing of feathered headdresses and war paint on the sidelines of football games as a form of minstrel show, but realized there was no movement to abolish it because there was no local Native American population to raise awareness. This is also true in D.C. According to the Washington Post, less than half of one percent of Washington residents has Native American blood.
Changing the name (I suggest another tribe indigenous to D.C. that is not living in poverty: the Lobbyists) would not be a dubious act of political correctness, like removing racial slurs from Huckleberry Finn. Rather, it would be a moral act that would demonstrate simple decency without having any effect on the team’s performance. The change has a precedent in Washington. Sixteen years ago, concerned about the image of a city with one of the highest homicide rates in the nation, the owner of the local NBA team changed its name from the Bullets to the Wizards. The name “Redskins” is far, far worse. It’s time for team management and the NFL to do the right thing.
(And while I’m on the subject: Cleveland, for heaven’s sake, get rid of this:)