The Washington Redskins Reignite Their Name Controversy

By Paul Grossinger

Dan Snyder sure knows how to handle awkward situations, doesn't he?  When confronted with the issue of his team's name, brought to the forefront for the nth time by a DC councilman attempting to pass a non-binding-resolution that would force the team to abandon "Redskins" in favor of "Redtails", he came out guns blazing – the Washington Redskins will never change their name.   This isn't precisely the best example I've ever seen of a team defusing a potentially problematic relationship, and it was worsened by him dividing people into "true Redskins fans", who understand the history and tradition of the name Redskins, and non-fans who don't.  This ignores the quite possible situation where someone loves the history of the Redskins, with Joe Gibbs and Sammy Baugh and all that good stuff, and yet really wishes their team name didn't contain an ethnic slur in it.

The name always seems to come under attack – which is understandable, seeing how it's been described as "a pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation for a Native American person". It's not just one councilman raising issues this time, either – going through the US House of Representatives at the moment is a bill, albeit one that doesn't seem to have a chance of gaining any traction, that would ban any trademark on the name "Redskins". There are also a couple cases working their way through the court system that would end up with roughly the same end result – no trademark on the word.

The Redskins have done a better job at dealing with these critiques in the past, so perhaps Snyder was just tired of dealing with the issue – after all, if every off season, you had to deal with this, wouldn't you be bothered?  It's not just the NFL, either --more than two dozen high schools have switched from the name over the past 20 years, pressured by Native American groups and their communities to switch to something less racially orientated.

That is what the name is.  You can argue and debate as to whether or not it's a slur, of if it is, how it compares to the N-word or something like that, but it's definitely, unambiguously a word designed to segregate people into being part of one group or another.  And, even more problematically, it's a word being used by a franchise which simply has not had a historical connection to the people it's describing.  Contrast them, for example, with the old '20s NFL barnstorming team the Oorang Indians.  That team was comprised entirely of Native Americans – or, well, at least part Native Americans (which is a sticky subject in and of itself) – including Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe.  If they want to call themselves Indians, well, that's their prerogative.  It's a little more problematic when someone else comes in and tries to appropriate that racial iconography for their own purposes.

The worst thing about Snyder's non-response, actually, is the fact that there are ways you can try to defend the name– arguments which respect his fan base's intelligence more than dividing them into "true" fans and others.  Jack Cooke, the owner of the Redskins before Snyder, was usually as brusque as Snyder was, but he made sure to point out that, in his view, the name was intended to pay homage to Native Americans rather than discriminate – stating that the name represents a tradition of "bravery, courage, and a stalwart spirit."  Tradition is the key – the name's been used since the ‘30s, and predates the team's move to Washington, so it has a lot of history – it's tied up with the Super Bowl wins and the old NFL Championship Games and all that.   Long-time fans of the team have a lot of positive memories tied up in the name and history.  The Redskins have even made a point of highlighting several schools on the high school level who were equally proud to be called Redskins, as well – it's not just an NFL issue. 

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder

Landover, MD, USA: Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder stands on the field prior to the Redskins game against the Philadelphia Eagles at FedEx Field. Photo Courtesy by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports.

And then there's a little matter of hard data – there's a 2004 poll out there which came to the conclusion that 91% of Native Americans were not bothered by Washington's use of the name. So, if you're taking the side of defending the use of Redskins, you have a lot more weapons to use than "true fans understand", and had Snyder taken one of those avenues, I think people would be a little less harsh on him.  Then again, that's not exactly the Snyder way, so no one should be surprised.

On the other hand...

All of the attempts to defend the name are, to one degree or another, flawed – or at least, I feel so.  Take that poll, for instance – 91% is a huge number, and it seems like that should be an open and shut case, right?  Well, not so fast – it surveyed people who self-identified on the survey as at least part Native American.  That raises some issues because, well, hey, I'm at least part Native American – about 1/64th, actually, with a native great-great-great-great grandmother.  And I know that fact, and I'm not alone – people are proud of their heritage, and rightfully so, and there's a bit of cultural cache in saying that you're part Native American, just like there is in saying your family came over on the Mayflower.

Here's the issue, though – I can pretty much guarantee that no one has used "Redskin" or another racial remark like that against me, and no Native American stereotype has ever really been applied to me or anyone else like me. Simply having an ancestor 300 years ago doesn't qualify me as a full member of Native American society, and yet, I could have been polled by that survey without any issues, and so could anyone who can claim any relation with Native American blood – or just wanted to be part of a poll on the Redskins name, for that matter.  The survey can't be held up as certain evidence that the name isn't offensive.

Plus, the issues of tradition begin to fall flat when you realize that the word has a history outside the franchise, and it's much older than that.  It's not the heritage of Redskins fan; it's simply the name of a football team.  The word is part of a much older tradition, those buried in the chapters of our history texts we're not fans of – stories of conquest and forced relocation, dehumanization and deracination.  It's just not different in any practical way from having a team called the Los Angeles Wetbacks or San Francisco Chinamen – it's racially charged language, to go alongside racially charged iconography (mascots and logos and whatnot).  That's not saying, mind you, that Redskins fans can't be proud of their team or its history – far from that.  It's just that claiming the name Redskins as solely your history is problematic, at best.

This sounds like I'm saying that Native American team names are forever taboo, and that's just not the case – if you want to see an example of a team doing it right, look to the college ranks and the Florida State Seminoles.  Since 1978, they've actually partnered with several of the actual local Seminole tribes.  Not only does this mean they have the express permission of the people whose imagery they're using, but it's brought with it a certain level of quality control – the logo represents an actual person as opposed to a stereotype, and all the pre-game hoopla and mascots and pageantry and whatnot all are authentic – or, at least, 'close enough' for an adapted ceremony involved with big-time college football.  They've gained the approval of the people who they are claiming to represent, and that goes a long way to smoothing over any objections anyone else has.

Further clouding the problem is the fact that it's not cut and dry – where you personally draw the line can vary a lot from individual to individual, and there's not a spot over which something is definitively racist or not racist, or what have you.  It's perfectly acceptable to think a name like Seminoles, or Incas – referring to a specific group with a specific history – is on an entirely different level from some kind of generic description of a people, or worse yet, a stereotype–like these Redskins, or mascots like Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians or Chief Noc-A-Homa of the Atlanta Braves.  That's logically consistent.  Or, you can have issues within the context of the same team – Chiefs and Braves are just the names of a group of warriors, so that's alright next to the Vikings or Buccaneers, but maybe the tomahawk chop and people dressed up in headdresses is offensive.  These are all complex topics, and you can have a variety of opinions on this – there is no clear middle ground.  It's not black and white.

There IS one black and white issue here, though – Snyder's right.  For all his brusqueness, it's true -- the Redskins won't ever change their name.  And you know why?  It's not racism.  It's not tradition.  It's not pride in a team's history or your people's history, it's not stereotypes, and it's not DC councilmen.  It's not red skins at all – it's green backs, i.e. money.  As long as people keep going to games and buying merchandise, there's no reason for the Redskins to change – they're not just a football team, they are a business, and businesses aren't prone to change without a financial reason to do so.  Changing all the trademarks and merchandise would cost the Redskins a ton of money, so unless their bottom line gets attacked – or said court cases or bills in the US House get passed – we can expect the Redskins to last for a long time indeed.

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