“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society."
"From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade."
"Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode."
"Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.”
– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait , 1963
Last week the US Patent and Trademark Office, in response to a suit filed by Navajo activist Amanda Blackhorse and four others, terminated six federal trademark registrations held by Washington's pro football team. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled that the team's name cannot be protected, because it disparages Native Americans and federal law bans the trademarking of offensive language. While the decision could have wide repercussions, it does not require the team to change its name. It is also subject to appeal, which the team has confirmed it will pursue.
As a result of the cancellation, the Redskins have far more limited federal trademark protection to stop counterfeits and other businesses from commercially exploiting their name in selling merchandise and apparel.
The team lost a similar trademark case in the late 1990s, but that decision was reversed on a technicality.
The ruling’s main impact is that it serves as a moral victory in one of the biggest fights in all of American sports – the fight to change the name of the football team located in our nation's capital. The debate against the name has never been more intense. Here are some important points to keep in mind.
FACT: For centuries, some Native people have used the word "Redskin" (and its variations) as an identifier. Some still do. The word unquestionably predates the current conversation and even the supposed genesis of the term in the very real scalping policies of the 19th century, when white bounty hunters were paid for scalps only when they proved their Indian origin by showing the red skin.
FACT: The vast majority of Native people do not sit around wishing the Redskins would change their name. Most don't care about this topic. Some do. Some actually like the name. Either way, there's no consensus at all.
FACT: 62 high schools in 22 states currently use the Redskins name. But on the flip side, 28 high schools in 18 states have dropped the mascot over the last 25 years.
FACT: The debate has been simmering for decades, but last year it took a drastic turn. Last spring the team's owner Daniel Snyder gave a swaggering interview to USA Today in which he fatefully said, “We will NEVER change the name. And you can use all caps.” Snyder’s comments was like lighter fluid to a grease fire. All of a sudden, more and more prominent people started to speak out against the name, from local DC politicians (who told Snyder that if he wanted to move the team back into the District, he would have to change the name), to 50 US Senators who sent Snyder a letter asking the team to change it’s name, and to even President Obama who said he thought the name should be changed. Seventy-six media outlets and journalists (Mother Jones, Slate, The New Republic, The Kansas City Star, The San Francisco Chronicle, ESPN's Bill Simmons, Sports Illustrated's Peter King, etc) are boycotting the name.
Before we can truly understand the debate, before we can truly grasp what the fuss is all about, we first must understand the history.
In 1933, George Preston Marshall, a flamboyant Laundromat magnate, changed the name of his recently purchased football team. The original name was the Boston Braves.
The new name was the Boston Redskins.
The myth that has existed for the last 80 years is that Marshall changed the team's name in honor of his coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, a man who at the time was believed to be of Sioux descent (however it was later reported that Dietz merely pretended to be Indian to avoid fighting in World War I).
But a report released just last month blew that myth to smithereens. According to a 1933 article by the Associated Press, Marshall decided to change the name to distance his franchise from the Boston Braves baseball team. This is important because the team and the NFL has long used the myth of Marshall changing the team’s name to “honor” his allegedly Indian coach as a buffer against critics.
The team drew little interest from Boston sports fans, and he thought it was because the team had the exact same name as the city’s second baseball team. He was too cheap to spend the money to change the Indian logo, which is why he went from “Braves” to “Redskins.” He wasn’t trying to honor anybody. The team’s new name was nothing more than a marketing ploy.
When he moved the team to Washington D.C. in 1937, they became the first NFL franchise located below the Mason-Dixon line. This pleased Marshall greatly because he was, without question, a racist. Marshall aggressively marketed the Redskins as the South’s team. He produced a fight song, written by his wife Corinne, in which the lyrics were downright sinister.
Hail to the Redskins,
Braves on the Warpath,
Fight for Old D.C.!…
Scalp ‘um, swamp ‘um, we will take’um big score….
Black players suspiciously started to vanish from the NFL in the early 1930s. The league didn’t reintegrate until 1946, when Los Angeles Rams owner Dan Reeves signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. The tide had turned and more and more teams started to sign black players.
But there was one owner who refused, one segregationist who stood on his soapbox and screamed “OVER MY DEAD BODY!”
His name? George Preston Mashall, a man who famously said he would “start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters started signing whites.”
In 1959, Marshall changed the lyrics to the team’s fight song from “Fight for old D.C.” to “Fight for old Dixie.”
Washington was, as it remains today, a city obsessed with football. The team’s success at drawing fans, despite their pitiful win-loss record, encouraged Marshall to sign a deal with the city to build a new stadium on land owned by the federal government. The American Nazi Party would soon show up outside the new stadium marching with placards that read “KEEP THE REDSKINS WHITE!” The NAACP picketed at the new stadium, and at Marshall’s house. What he didn’t know was that in owning a stadium that sat on federal land, he would be exposing himself to government intervention. In 1961 the new Kennedy Administration would hand Marshall a stinging defeat. Stewart Udall, John Kennedy’s Secretary of Interior, issued an ultimatum – start signing black players or we will revoke your stadium's lease. The writing was on the wall. Pete Rozell, the NFL’s new image-conscious commissioner brokered a deal between Udall and Marshall. A year later the team would sign its first black player, Bobby Mitchell.
Twenty years later, the Washington Redskins beat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII. I was watching on my grandfather’s TV back in my tiny hometown of Seaboard, North Carolina.
I was seven years old. And I instantly became a fan.
I picked the right team at the right time. The Redskins were the league’s second most dominant team of the 1980s (behind only the San Francisco 49ers). They won three Super Bowls in nine years. Their second Super Bowl was especially sweet because their quarterback, Doug Williams, was the first black quarterback to lead his team to the promise land, thereby annihilating the racist belief that black quarterbacks were incapable of leading a team to the championship. The team had the stoic Joe Gibbs as their coach, and iconic players like John Riggins, Joe Theismann, Art Monk, and Darrell Green. Their wide receivers had cool nicknames like The Posse and The Fun Bunch. Their dominant offensive line were nicknamed The Hogs. And they played their home games in old RFK Stadium, one of the most intimidating stadiums in the league.
I grew up worshipping this team, and by default, I grew up hating the Dallas Cowboys.
The name debate first gathered national attention 22 years ago when the team traveled to Minneapolis to play the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI. Minnesota has a sizable Indian population, and a lot of them were shown on TV protesting the team’s name.
I can barely remember the protests. That’s how little I cared about the controversy at the time. My ambivalent feelings persisted until just last year, right around the time when the team's owner Dan Snyder told USA Today that he was NEVER going to change the name. That comment struck me as being tone-deaf to the point of lunacy.
I immediately started to spend a lot of time researching, and in the process I educated myself on the history of the word “redskin.” And what I found is that the word is not 100% offensive, and it’s not 100% benign. The answer is that it’s somewhere in the middle.
What completely changed my mind on the name once and for all were two moving stories that I came upon. The first story was from 18 years ago. A high school in Wichita, Kansas was a having debate over the use of their 70-year old “Redskin” mascot. During a televised town hall, Clem Ironwing, a local Indian of Sioux descent, stood before the audience and explained why “Redskin” should no longer be used as the school’s mascot.
"The word Redskin was taught to me at a very young age, and this is the meaning it has for me."
"I am a Native American. I grew up on an Indian reservation. As a child, the United States Government and the Catholic Church came into our homes, took us away from our families, and forced us into Catholic boarding schools. There was no choice to be had in this matter, you had to go. The Catholic Church with the blessings of the United States Government took it upon themselves to determine that we were savages, and needed to be transformed to fit into their society."
"When my hair was cut short by the priests, I was called a "redskin" and a savage. When I spoke my native tongue, I was beaten and called "redskin". When I tried to follow the spiritual path of my people, I was again beaten and called a "redskin". I was told by them to turn my back on the ways of my people, or I would forever be nothing but a dirty "redskin".
"The only way "redskin" was ever used towards my people and myself was in a derogatory manner. It was never, ever, used in a show of respect or kindness. It was only used to let you know that you were dirty and no good, and to this day still is.”
The second story was one told to the British news site Metro by Mike Wise, a sportswriter for the Washington Post.
"I’m sure there are many American Indians who aren’t offended by it, but I’ve talked to enough that have said otherwise, people that were called “dirty redskins” as children and the feelings that conjured up for them, to see their point of view."
‘It’s an issue I’ve written about at every paper I’ve worked at since college. I was moved in the early 90s by a gentleman from Minnesota, who was a Sioux Indian, and a story he told me about taking his son to a high school basketball game. A Caucasian man in war paint was going crazy at half-time, doing a dance in the child’s face and the little boy just turned away and cried."
‘The man could see his son’s self-esteem was destroyed and so he went out and convinced 39 Minnesota high schools to change their Indian nicknames. He didn’t want his son to be a stereotype out of a John Wayne western movie. When he told me that story it was pretty convincing and many Native Americans I’ve met since have communicated those same feelings to me."
For me, it was impossible to hear these two stories, and then return to the inane talking point that says the team’s name is meant to “honor” Native Americans.
Honoring a group of people who were all but wiped from the face of the continent via systematic deception, persecution, and slaughter by making them your sports mascot is an odd conception of “honoring.”
Yes, I used to be in favor of the name. I used to defend it. But I did research, I learned new information, and I evolved. And if 35 to 40 percent of Native Americans think that word is offensive, then I choose to side with them. As Geoffrey Nunberg, the linguist who testified against the name in last week's trademark case, wrote in the Atlantic ...
"The sea change in social attitudes that led to the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 also transformed the way we talked about race and ethnicity. That was when we collectively acknowledged that every group was entitled to control its own linguistic destiny, and decide what it should and shouldn’t be called—that groups had the right to define themselves."
"When the decade opened, liberal-minded people referred to Negroes, while an unreconstructed rear guard still talked about “coloreds.” By the decade’s end, pretty much everybody was using “blacks.” Over the following decades Orientals became Asians, queers became gays, and the new terms “Latino,” “Hispanic,” and “Chicano” were added to the vocabulary."
In other words, Native Americans should have the same right to self-identify that everybody else has. Instead, in the case of the Redskins, we have a bunch of non-Native people trying to tell Native people how they should or should not feel about a derogatory word that we associate with Native people.
I think it's absurd that people who are not the target of racial slurs are always quick to tell the targets how they should feel about the slurs.
The Golden State Warriors, when they were the Philadelphia Warriors, had a logo that was an Indian caricature. They changed it. The Kansas City Chiefs, who were the last professional sports team to adopt a name based on a race of people, changed their Indian caricature logo in favor of the arrowhead that is still in use today. Syracuse University dropped its Indian caricature logo in 1978 after Native American students protested. The Atlanta Braves retired "Chief Noc-A-Homa," a man in Native American dress who would emerge from a tepee in the left field bleachers to dance after a home run. In 1994 both Marquette University and St. Johns University retired their Native American mascots.
In 1970, more than 3,000 high school, college, and professional sports teams had Native American nicknames or mascots. Today, fewer than 1,000 remain.
Is the word “Redskin” racist? Is it not racist? We’re debating a false argument. What we really should be debating is if it makes sense, in 2014, for our sports teams to be named after a race of people. I don’t think sports teams should be named after groups of people based on ethnicity, national origin, or religion because it invites stereotyping, even if meant in a positive sense. Former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke once said, “I admire the Redskins name. I think it stands for bravery, courage, and a stalwart spirit.” Fine, so maybe we should name the Harvard debate team “The Jews.” Or maybe an all-black school in the Bronx can name their Math team “The Koreans.” Positive stereotypes are still stereotypes. Not all Jews are smart, not all Koreans are good at math, and not all Irish people get into fights (and yes, that was a shot at Notre Dame).
Other teams that once embraced demeaning Native American nicknames had pride and tradition, too; nevertheless, they've changed. Washington hasn't.
Personally speaking, Dan Snyder has pretty much killed my Redskins fandom. I used to love the team. But I've now developed a severe case of apathy. During his 16-year tenure, the Washington Redskins have been a bad football team, but a great soap opera. The team has only four winning seasons under Snyder. An NFL front office should be a model of stability, whereas the Redskins are permanently in chaos, with the same recurring pattern: new "name" coach comes in, hype ensues, expectations are not met, there are media reports of a front office in turmoil, the honeymoon ends and the coach gets fired. Over and over and over.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Snyder has employed a jaw-dropping eight head coaches in his 16 years. Some of them were smart hires (Marty Schottenheimer, Joe Gibbs, Mike Shanahan), and some of them were bat-shit crazy hires (Steve Spurrier, Jim Zorn).
Snyder charges fans outrageous prices for tickets. Parking your car at FedEx Field will set you back $40. He charges $9 for a cup of beer that turns warm the second you return to your seat. He infamously became the first owner in the history of the sport to charge fans to attend training camp. He spent an insane amount of money on washed up free agents like Jeff George, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Donovan McNabb, and many others. In February of 2009 he fired two dozen team employees in an effort to "save money," and then he turned right around a few weeks later and signed the lazy basket case known as Albert Haynesworth to a ridiculous $100 million dollar contract.
I almost quit the team right then.
Snyder has a history of creating locker room resentment because he dotes on his favorite players, like Robert Griffin III and Clinton Portis. He’s litigious to the extreme. He once sued fans who couldn’t afford their season tickets after their savings were wiped out by the housing crisis of 2008. He once sued the Washington City Paper, in one of the dumbest lawsuits ever, because he didn’t like a scathing article they wrote about him, even though the article was 100% accurate.
In a damning quote, a former member of the team's personnel department told the Washington Post that Snyder's involvement with the football operation outmatches his football expertise. In the same article, several former employees said job security was a constant fear. “I never worked in such a nervous building before,” one former employee said. “You never saw anyone who came in and was like, ‘Wow, great to be here today.’ It was grim faces all the time. It was a dozen Bob Cratchits.”
Dan Snyder is three things: a marketing genius, a football management moron, and a complete and utter asshole.
I'm convinced that much of this change-the-name movement is driven by the fact that so many people don't like him. And his response to the rising tide of people who want the name gone has been borderline deranged.
Earlier this year he established a foundation to help Native Americans. He named it the Original Americans Foundation, or "OAF!" In a letter to fans, he referred to Native Americans as Native Americans 15 different times. And how many times did he refer to them as "Redskins?"
Which begs the question, "if redskin is such an honorable word, then why didn't he refer to Native Americans as ... you know ... redskins?"
He also hired a bunch of DC strategists like Frank Lutz and Ari Fleischer to help defend the name. My favorite hire of his is George Allen, the former Virginia governor and senator, who was forced to suspend his reelection campaign because he called an Indian-American man a "macaca" at one of his campaign stops.
In other words, Snyder hired a guy who used a racial slur, to defend his team's nickname, which is a racial slur.
You can't make this stuff up.
The last 16 years have been too much for me. And that's why I’ve decided to renounce my fandom of the Washington Redskins. I'm not quitting because of the team's name, I'm quitting because of the team's owner.
If anybody reading this is a Redskins fan, I truly wish you guys the best of luck. If RG3 leads the team to Super Bowl glory, it will personally be bittersweet, and I'm sure a part of me will be happy.
There have been great memories, like watching Mark Brunell stun the Cowboys with two long touchdown passes to Santana Moss in the final minutes of a Monday night game in Dallas, or going to FedEx Field to see Darrell Green's last home game after a remarkable 20 year career. And there have been some sad memories, like the gut-wrenching experience of watching the team lose in the last seconds to the Buffalo Bills just days after star safety Sean Taylor was murdered.
When you've been a fan of something for 30 years, it's not easy to walk away. As I type this, I'm starting to reminisce, and I can feel myself getting choked up. We live and die with our favorite sports team. We self-identify through our favorite teams. We make lifelong friends with people who are fans of our favorite teams. And there is something uniquely special about the Washington Redskins. The District of Columbia is perhaps the most polarizing city in America. Democrats, Republicans, the rich, the poor, the white, the brown - on Sundays in the fall, they put aside their philosophical, economic, and racial differences and they come together to root for their Redskins. That's some pretty powerful stuff. And I can understand on an emotional level, why fans would want to keep that name.
And to the defenders of the name, I hear your arguments. They sound a lot like this ...
"This is a boring topic. YAWN!!!"
"My great-grandmother was Cherokee and I'm not offended."
"It's Snyder's team. He can do what he wants."
"Ugh. THERE ARE BIGGER PROBLEMS IN THE WORLD!"
"We mean no harm. We are honoring them."
"GET OVER IT ALREADY!"
"This is some liberal bullshit!!"
"I'm sick of the sensitive, whiny, PC police!"
"It's not a slur. It's just a physical description."
"You never had a problem with it before."
"Dude. Most Native Americans don't care."
and of course, my personal favorite ...
(clearing my throat.)
(takes a sip of water.)
(lets out an audible sigh.)
I know this is pointless, but here we go ...
You guys are foaming at the mouth to defend a sports team name, a brand, a marketing money-making tool. One invented by an open Racist with a capital R, which is currently profiting an open Douchebag with a capital D. I know that your defense of your childhood memories and attachment to the name comes from a place that's pure, and I know you believe it's not racist. Yes, some natives are not bothered by the name. But historically, we nearly wiped Native Americans off the map. This is a tiny concession. Find something else to bitch about. Your right to have a football team named something mildly offensive is not important. If Snyder changes the name tomorrow, it will have zero effect on your lives.
We'd never think of naming a team the Whiteskins or the Palefaces or, for that matter, the Blackskins or the Darkies. As a society evolves, so should its sensitivity to the feelings of all the people within it.
It's really that simple: respect for Native Americans and the humanity they share with everyone else.
And can we please stop with the "tradition" argument? Slavery used to be a tradition in this country. Segregation in the South used to be tradition, gender discrimination used to be tradition. But we evolved. The history of the United States and the American west is infused with stories of the mistreatment of the Native Americans. It was couched in myths of heroism and Manifest Destiny that were told to instill pride in our nation's past.
Watch any Western and pay close attention to how the Native Americans are portrayed. It’s ugly and its sad. References to “Redskins” should be wiped away as a statement of a just society’s moral outrage.
Dan Snyder, the time has come for you to change the name. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. Change it today. Don't do it because the government is putting the squeeze on you. Do it because it's the right thing to do. And then, once "Redskins" is gone, we can all turn our attention to the next racially offensive thing in sports that must die a public death as well.
I'm talking about you, Chief Wahoo.