In 1932, a money-minded showman named George Preston Marshall bought a team called the Boston Braves in the young, developing National Football League (NFL). His second head coach hired in his second year of ownership—the team began the tradition of new blood under the headset each season much longer ago than many believe—was a man named William “Lone Star” Dietz, reportedly of Sioux descent. Most NFL coaches today are known for their no-nonsense demeanor on game days; Dietz was encouraged by Marshall to adorn himself in a headdress and war paint before his team’s home contests. Marshall was so fascinated by Native American pageantry that in 1933 he decided to honor his coach by renaming his franchise the Boston “Redskins.” He maintained that parallelism was involved as well; the team was playing at Fenway Park at the time, home of the Boston Red Sox.
A History Defined by Owners?
The less-reported fact, however, is that Marshall was perhaps the most bigoted figure in national sports at the time. By the year 1961, the Washington Redskins were the only NFL team that had yet to sign an African-American player. Marshall didn’t sidestep around the fact: “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”
Though Marshall is considered the father of “football as entertainment” because of his innovational ideas in the sport—splitting the league into two division whose respective champions would compete for a national championship, introducing the glitzy halftime shows we view as commonplace today—his refusal to integrate cannot be ignored. It was not until the federal government threatened retribution and blacks picketed and boycotted games that Marshall used his number one draft pick to select the first African-American Heisman trophy winner, Ernie Davis.
The current fifteen-year owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder, is one of the NFL’s billionaires, his fortune primarily built off his lucrative franchise. But facing recent calls to change his team name out of respect for the team’s Native American fans and Native Americans everywhere, Snyder wrote in a October 2013 letter: “On that inaugural Redskins team, four players and our Head Coach were Native Americans. The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor…We are Redskins Nation and we owe it to our fans and coaches and players, past and present, to preserve that heritage.”
The history of the Washington Redskins coupled with the power of the word “Redskin” has fueled lawsuit and activist campaigns since the name was officially registered in 1967. The calls for change began in earnest over twenty years ago, when famed Native American activist Suzan Shown Harjo filed a lawsuit against the Redskins.
Snyder invokes team history in his defense of the name, but when this history is revealed to be one of racism and stereotype, that claim becomes harder to defend. Still to be explored, however, is the effect a name change would have on team identity or the financial losses that could come from bestowing a new team name. Many franchises have changed their names or removed offensive iconography with little or no effect on team success—but none have done so as a result of being forced to by protests, the league commissioner, or the Supreme Court; all avenues that have been explored in the effort to retire the word “Redskin.”
For many Native Americans, “Redskin” is a racial slur that won’t leave their mouths. In speaking with the HPR, Joel Barkin, spokesman for the Oneida Nation, actively avoided using the term. The Oneida Nation, a Native American tribe based in New York, has spent the past few years engaged in an educational “Change the Mascot” campaign, urging the NFL to force Snyder’s hand by raising awareness about the power of the team name. In late January, the Onedia Nation took their campaign farther by soliciting the United Nations, believing the situation had entered the realm of human rights. “The fact of the matter is, many people in this country have their first and sometimes only interactions with Native Americans through professional sports,” explained Barkin. “In this case, through a nine- billion-dollar industry that is promoting a racial slur.”
Supporters of the Redskins’ retaining their name often cite an Annenberg poll that reported 90 percent of Native American respondents did not consider the term “Redskins” offensive. Barkin refutes the poll by noting that it asked one, out-of-context question—what do you think about the word ‘Redskins’?—to anyone who believed they were Native American, not necessarily who belonged to a tribe. Dr. Carter Meland, professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, takes a different stance in refuting the polls’ influence. In writing to the HPR, he noted: “While there is a diversity of opinion among Native people concerning a team name like the R-word…that does not mean that the word is not a racial epithet.” Meland cited the large populations that believed Anti-Semitic and segregationist laws were defendable in the mid to late 20th century. His suggestion that certain respondents may not have realized or fully comprehended the significance of ‘Redskin’ actually signals a more sinister repercussion: the word’s influence on the subconscious.
Barkin cited another, less reported resolution released by the American Psychological Association in 2005 that highlighted the “the potential negative impact…on the mental health and psychological behavior of American Indian people” stemming from the use of the word ‘Redskins” and recommended “the immediate retirement of Native American mascots, symbols, images, and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations.” Barkin noted that this potential negative effect adds to the existing plight of Native Americans, explaining that “Native Americans in this country…suffer some of the highest rates of poverty…heart disease…suicide, the lowest life expectancy.” Dr. Meland reiterated Barkin’s statement, delving further than just the psyche of Native Americans: “words like ‘redskins’ deny Native people their humanity.”
Most of the protesters of the team name also protest the Redskins’ logo: a profile of a stereotypical Native American chief. Since 1978, an African-American fan named Zee Williams, known as Chief Zee, has served as an unofficial team mascot of sorts, attending each home game dressed in a faux-headdress, wielding a tomahawk. His admission and parking pass, as well as a motorized scooter he uses to maneuver around the stadium in his 70-plus years of age, are paid for by the team; he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a superfan in 2000. A Washington Post writer who profiled him wrote that “like the nickname [‘Redskins’], Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have grandfathered in Chief Zee, tone-deaf to the caricaturing of an ethnic minority, unable to see past a franchise’s symbolic touchstone.” The irony in Williams’ stereotypical portrayal of a Native American isn’t lost to the common observer. In comparing use of the R-word to use of the N-Word, Barkin said, “I think there are definitely some equivalencies. But here’s an easier way to look at it: would you go into a Native American’s home and refer to them as a bunch of ‘Redskins’? If this word is not acceptable in casual, everyday conversation, then why should it be acceptable to be used and marketed by a sports team?…It starts and ends with that basic question.”
The Conflict Intensifies
Since 1992, which saw Harjo’s lawsuit and over 2,000 protesters at the Redskins’ appearance in the Super Bowl, there has been an upsurge in resistance against the name. In November 2013, the Washington DC Council of lawmakers voted to force the Redskins to change their name. Though the ruling held no real import, as the Washington Redskins play in Maryland and practice in Virginia, the words of Council Member-at-Large David Grass were powerful: allowing the Redskins to keep their team name “is akin to saying to the Native American people . . . your pain has less worth than our football memories.” Meland too stressed the idea of one entity’s worth over another, stating “As far as I’m concerned, such racist names have no place in a liberal society which holds that all people are equal.”
In early February 2014, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) signed their names to a letter written to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, urging him towards a name change, citing that “Virtually every major civil rights organization in America has spoken out in opposition to this name including the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, the Rainbow Coalition and the League of United Latin American Citizens.” And even more recently, fifty of Cantwell’s colleagues have joined in the effort: on May 22, 2014, half the United States Senate—two independents and the rest Democrats—signed a letter to Commissioner Goodell, asking for action as swift and resolute as the National Basketball Association’s banning of Los Angeles Clippers Owner Donald Sterling for his racist remarks revealed in late April. The letter, penned by Cantwell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), urged: “send the same clear message the NBA did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports.” In a century and a decade where social norms are being redefined from dining room tables to the Supreme Court, twenty plus years of protest seem to be finally propelling the issue to an unavoidable confrontation instead of a stalemate.
The HPR reached out to Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie, who initially indicated willingness to participate in an interview but was later unavailable. However, Wyllie has made the team’s position explicitly clear in other contexts. As reported in the Washington Post, he responded to the Cantwell-Cole letter by writing: “With all the important issues Congress has to deal with, such as a war in Afghanistan to deficits to health care, don’t they have more important issues to worry about than a football team’s name?” Then referring specifically to Cole’s home state, he continued, “And given the fact that the name of Oklahoma means ‘Red People’ in Choctaw, this request is a little ironic.” The Board of Supervisors in Loudoun County, where the team’s headquarters and practice facility is located, supported their tenants in ruling—just a few days after the DC Council voted—that the name change decision is one to be made by the team and team alone.
There is Precedent
Controversy over a Native American-related team name is far from without precedent. In 2005, after reports from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) asked thirty-one teams to complete a self-evaluation on the offensiveness of their team names and/or mascots. The association eventually cited nineteen teams as having “hostile or abusive names, mascots, or images” and mandated that they would be banned from tournament play and unable to display their team paraphernalia during the postseason. The ruling sparked immediate change: The Arkansas State University Indians became the Red Wolves in 2008. And though the College of William and Mary had renamed themselves “The Tribe” from “The Indians” prior to the ruling, they were forced to remove two feathers that still adorned their logo. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was allowed to remain the “Fighting Illini” as a reference to the team’s home state, but to the chagrin of many students and alumni retired the Chief Illiniwek figure in 2007. The Florida State University Seminoles seem to be an obvious exception, but they keep their name with explicit permission from the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
A number of professional sports teams have also heeded calls to change offensive imagery. The NBA’s Golden State Warriors removed Native American imagery from their logos in 1971 and now emphasize the California part of their name with a logo depicting the Golden Gate Bridge. Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves retired their live mascot “Chief Noc-A-Homa” and his teepee atop the stadium in 1986, and after a 2013 controversy surrounding the possible revival of their “Screaming Indian” logo–first reported by ESPN’s Paul Lukas–reverted to their traditional “A”. And in the NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs stopped allowing a man in a feathered headdress to ride a horse into the stadium as a mascot in 1989.
What Comes Next
The NFL could force the Redskins to change their team name, much as the NCAA directed their teams to change. However, Commissioner Roger Goodell has said a team’s name is left to the sole discretion of the team owner and cited the aforementioned Annenberg poll in discussing the offensiveness of the term “Redskins.” He diplomatically added that the NFL must be open to listening and sensitive to fan opinions, so perhaps the Oneida Nation should focus its attention on getting fan support beyond the Native American community—the kind of support that could lead to boycotts like the African-American protests outside the Washington Redskins’ stadium in the early 1960s that finally ended the Redskins’ lack of African American players.
The departure from tradition switching the name would entail is regrettable, but worth it if it means alleviating real psychological pain. The real way to move the NFL is through its revenue. The NFL may never listen to the calls of Native Americans; if fans don’t mind, the NFL probably won’t mind either. As Barkin concluded, “it’s greed at the cost of offending a large group of people.” Absent a significant fan reaction, it may be time to examine the NFL’s autonomy, the leeway bestowed on the league by our nation’s lawmakers that has created A Great Wall of Goodell; too difficult to overcome even when a racial slur is in play.