Washington Redskins Name Controversy

I grew up just outside of Washington D.C. in a suburban family headed by sensitive, caring women. My grandmother and mother were politically correct before that was a term, willing to develop friendships with everyone they encountered regardless of race, sexual orientation, political affiliation or any other characteristic that was discriminated against in Virginia. I got into several fights at school when I questioned the intelligence of racist or homophobic joke-tellers. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that something my family has held incredibly dear for so long was a symbol of racism. I am a third-generation Washington Redskins fan.

Even if you have never watched a football game, you’ve probably heard of the Redskins, a polarizing franchise that has recently pierced the veil of non-sports news. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III seemed to have an ESPN crew permanently assigned to covering him during the off-season, in addition to his appearances in commercials for Adidas, Subway, EA Sports and Gatorade.

Griffin’s recovery from knee surgery and the team’s poor start to the season—while the subject of much discussion—isn’t the news that has been discussed on the floor of Congress. Team owner Daniel Snyder stirred up a furious controversy by declaring that the name “Redskins” will never change. Politicians including Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who heads the Congressional Native American Caucus, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and President Obama have since gone on the record to voice their disapproval. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Obama said, “If I were the owner and I knew that the name of my team, even if they’ve had a storied history, was offending a sizable group of people I’d think about changing it.”

Several sports reporters, including Peter King and Bill Simmons, have recently joined online magazine Slate in going so far as to discontinue the use of the name “Redskins” altogether. They will now only refer to them as “the team from Washington” or “Washington.” Even Bob Costas used his halftime monologue during NBC’s Oct. 13 Sunday Night Football broadcast to come down on the side of change. All of these strong opinions have forced me to re-examine my own position.

What am I cheering for, exactly? None of the players, coaches, executives or cheerleaders from the Super Bowl teams of my youth are still on the squad. The franchise itself was sold in the late 1990s to Snyder, whose only redeeming quality is that he grew up a Redskins fan. There is no continuity whatsoever. Am I cheering for the city and community of Washington, D.C.? Hah! What I am cheering for is the potentially racist symbol on the side of the helmet. That’s the only thing that hasn’t really changed in the years that I have been watching, and that’s tough to accept.

A team’s name often creates a common bond that transcends other considerations between people. Walking around the parking lot of FedEx Field before a game, every single one of those drunken, screaming yahoos in burgundy and gold is my best friend. There are people I couldn’t have a civil conversation with on any other subject whom I can talk with for hours about the Redskins. You may not like the guy down the street that much, but he’s a Lutheran, so he can’t be all bad, right? Same deal.

Dr. Cornel Pewewardy, director and associate professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State, has been working to eliminate the use of Native American mascots for 30 years. When I had a chance to sit down with him recently he was incredibly understanding about my history cheering for the team and my recent admission that the name needs to be changed. “To get past it, it helps to understand it. There’s a lot of work to do,” Pewewardy said.

Understanding where the name comes from shows just how unacceptable it is. In Pewewardy’s 2001 paper “I’m Not Your Indian Mascot Anymore: Countering the Assault of Indian Mascots in Schools,” he explains how the term originated in early colonial times, when European colonists paid bounties for Indian skins. It is hard to polish that up and make it look acceptable.

The argument I have made for years is that the Redskins name and logo are proud, dignified representations of Native Americans. It is certainly not, like Dan Patrick recently said on his national radio show, “some screaming Indian who looks like he is going to scalp you.” It is also not a simpleminded, smiling cartoon like the Cleveland Indians mascot. But it manages to depict an entire race of people as savages engaged in mock battle. It’s hard to think of any other race that the American public would accept in that position, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish being a notable exception.

A tired argument that gets dusted off every time a change is needed is the old “slippery slope” point. Where do you draw the line? Proponents of this position contend that if we give in and change the name of the Redskins, other beloved mascots will also be in danger. They say that if we relent on the Redskins issue then the Fighting Irish will be next. Eventually PETA will get into the fight and try to stop us from characterizing animals as vicious and confrontational, right? Nobody polled the local population of beavers to find out if they were okay with their depiction as toothy little warriors for Oregon State, did they?

That may be a fun argument to have over a pint at the bar, but it doesn’t hold up. The reason this issue deserves serious consideration is because of the history of Native American peoples in our society. We can try thinking that this is an isolated situation related to one word, but it really reflects the effect that the Redskins and other similar mascots have on actual, living people.

In his most recent paper, “America’s Living Room Theater: Confronting the Legacies of Colonialism through the Indian Mascot Controversy,” Pewewardy says, “Contrived media images distort the perception of millions of people in this country in their understanding of the authentic human experience of Indigenous people.” These nicknames, especially that of my beloved Washington footballers, are hurting the ability of Native Americans to create a modern identity for themselves.

There have been some instances where specific Native American tribes have decided to endorse their continued representation as mascots. The Seminole Tribe of Florida has given Florida State the go-ahead and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe approved Central Michigan calling themselves the Chippewas, but generalized names like Indians and Redskins put all Native Americans into one category. Nobody has been able to figure out what a Winterhawk is, but once they do, it is unlikely that the Portland hockey team will be able to keep their logo.

Native Americans have been thoroughly screwed over since Europeans showed up on this continent, and their struggles continue. If Native Americans feel they are being negatively affected by their continued representations as savages—noble or otherwise—then we should change it. Stanford University’s mascot was the Indians from 1930–1972, but it was decided that a change was necessary. Although thinking in D.C. is well behind Northern California, it’s time for our nation’s capitol to catch up. Just don’t you dare replace the logo with something as ridiculous as that tree.