Over the past few weeks, Americans have had a reckoning about race relations and racism in our country. We’ve been appalled to see videos and hear the accounts of the racist murders of unarmed African-Americans, and we’ve seen increasing pressure on lawmakers to change the laws to make this country a more just place for everyone, and to achieve equity in our institutions.
During this period of self-reflection about racism in America, as a DC sports fan, I became more outraged about the name of our football team. A team name that glorifies and celebrates a racial slur against a marginalized community in this country’s short yet complicated history, one that is listed in the dictionary as being “dated” and “offensive”.
It’s long past time to change the name of the Washington Redskins.
To understand the reasons why the name is so offensive, it’s worth taking a look at some of the earliest parts of team history. In 1932, George Preston Marshall moved to Boston and started a football team, known as the Boston Braves. The next year, Marshall moved his team into Fenway Park, and to avoid confusion with the baseball team by the same name, he changed the name from “Braves” to “Redskins”. Ironically, that same year, the team hired William Dietz as head coach, who identified himself as part Sioux. In 1937, Marshall relocated the team from Boston to DC, where they still play today. It was that year when the famous fight song, “Hail to the Redskins”, was written. The original lyrics to the song, written by Marshall’s wife, contained references to scalping, a deadly practice used commonly in the 19th century by American troops to brutally kill Native Americans. It took until 1972 and after Marshall’s death for the lyrics to the song to be changed.
However, this wasn’t Marshall’s only run-in with racism while being owner of the team. The Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate in 1961, and it took actions from the White House to require the team to sign a black player. Ernie Davis, the first black player to play on the team, was traded 10 days later because he did not want to play for Marshall, and signed another black player instead. Despite Marshall’s notorious record of racism, a statue of him outside RFK Stadium stood until Friday morning.
Once Marshall passed, the debate over the team name continued to rage on. 1972 saw a group of Native American leaders meeting with the team President, Edward Williams, urging the team name change. While that goal was unsuccessful, some of the aforementioned references to scalping were cut from the team fight song along with other minor changes. Protests for the name and against the name continued throughout the late 20th century and into the 2000s, where new team owner Dan Snyder made it adamantly clear that the team name was not going to be changed under his ownership.
And that brings us to today. In the year 2020, almost 90 years after Marshall first introduced the name “Redskins” to the NFL, the name sticks. American culture has changed during this time – back in the ‘30s when the team was founded, we were amidst the Great Depression and still hadn’t yet fought World War II or had a civil rights movement. It’s long overdue to change the name, and it glorifies a term that is modernly viewed by Native Americans as being derogatory and deeply hurtful. A study taken by the University of California, Berkeley this February found that 57% of those who strongly identified themselves with their Native American heritage were offended by the name and other representations of Native Americans in sports, including the Atlanta Braves’ tomahawk chop.
It’s also worth looking at the relationship between the U.S. government and Native Americans, and the systemic silencing of Native voices. Throughout history, Native Americans have been forced off of their historical tribal lands to live in infertile areas of Oklahoma and the American Southwest. Tragic incidents like the Sand Creek Massacre, where U.S. Army troops killed hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans in southeastern Colorado, are barely covered in history classes. We celebrate “heroes” like Christopher Columbus, who murdered and enslaved the indigenous Taino population when he landed in the “New World” for the first time. These problems continue today – Native American reservations are largely neglected by the government in the present day. The Navajo Nation, a reservation in Arizona and New Mexico, has had more deaths from COVID-19 than seven states combined. One in every three residents of the Navajo Nation have developed prediabetes or type 2 diabetes due to the lack of healthy food choices on the reservation – there are just 13 grocery stores on the entire reservation, which is similar to the size of West Virginia.
To put it mildly, we have treated the native community as second-class citizens for the entirety of American history. Simply put, Native Americans are people, not mascots. To go a step further and use an outdated racial slur as your team mascot is simply reprehensible.
In the recent weeks, multiple leagues have announced ways to combat racism and inequality within their organizations. The NFL has redacted a policy frowning upon kneeling during the national anthem as a peaceful protest against police brutality. NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from their races, and when a noose was found in driver Bubba Wallace’s locker, the league stood with Wallace and condemned such an ignorant action. But what I find most interesting is the action taken by the SEC in the NCAA. They announced that no conference championship games would be held in the state of Mississippi until they changed their flag, which *still* has the Confederate symbol displayed proud and center. Obviously, in a state where college football is basically a religion, fans of the Ole Miss Rebels and Mississippi State Bulldogs are disappointed with the lack of high-profile events, and the state of Mississippi will be devastated with the lack of additional revenue at these two public universities.
I think that if the NFL wanted to solidify themselves as an inclusive and equitable league, they should follow the SEC’s lead. No Super Bowls, Pro Bowls, or primetime games at FedEx Field until the name gets changed. Like the Mississippi scenario, this would anger longtime fans who wouldn’t get to experience prominent events like other NFL cities, but also lead to a loss of revenue for the Snyders. More importantly, as Dan Snyder looks to build a new stadium for the team, the lack of these events could raise doubts with lawmakers about whether or not to allow the stadium’s building. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has already indicated that she is hesitant to let Snyder redevelop the RFK Stadium site unless he changes the team’s name – an embargo like the NCAA’s might sway Maryland Governor Larry Hogan or Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to Bowser’s side, and refuse to give public funding towards a new stadium unless the change is made.
The last question I’ll raise is what to change the team name to. In the late 1990s, the athletic teams at Miami University in Ohio changed their name from Redskins to Redhawks, serving as an example of how to subtly create a more inclusive environment for all fans. Other names that are already in use in sports that have been raised include the Warriors, Braves (Washington Braves is just too weird to say), and Tribe. However, I think that this could be an incredible opportunity to shed all of the reminders to the racist name and change the team identity. What about the Washington Commanders, honoring our deep military history? Continentals, after the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War? Potomacs, after the river but paying slight homage to the Stafford County tribe it’s named after? Federals, with the obvious connection to the federal government? There are many options to choose from that don’t keep the stereotypes against Native Americans, and I think it would be a better choice to just start over.
Because of the racist history of the team name, I’ve never considered myself a Redskins fan. Sure, I’ll root for them in the name of city pride in the playoffs, but for the most part, I don’t pay much attention to the team. Instead, I root for the Miami Dolphins, my dad’s childhood favorite team and somehow arguably even more pathetic than the Redskins on the gridiron. I know many people just like me who’d root for the team if they had a more inclusive name. This is the 21st century – not the 1950s. Creating an anti-racist society means eradicating all monuments and mementos to a racist society. In a way, the Redskins’ name serves as the Native Americans’ equivalent to Confederate statues – an outdated reminder of a past we must pledge not to return to.
Let’s take this moment and use it for good social change. For once and for all – let’s change the Redskins’ name.
Baseball has traditionally been one of the most synonymously American pastimes throughout this country’s history. Legends like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson were more than just athletes – they were integral parts of American popular culture. During times of peace and comfort, we had baseball to turn to. During times of unrest and fear, we had baseball to turn to. However, during a time when this country needs a uniting force more than ever, baseball won’t be there for us.
Barring a miracle, there won’t be baseball played in 2020.
While that sentence is devastating to read, some good will come out of this, and it’s important to realize that not everything about this doomsday scenario is bad. Firstly, the lack of a 2020 season means that there will be no World Series, making the Washington Nationals the longest world champions of the 21st century so far – they’ll hold the title throughout all of 2020 and a majority of the calendar year 2021, before a potential new champion is crowned.
But much more importantly, the cancellation of the season is bittersweet news for players, who would have gotten the short end of the stick in any compromise. MLB owners, foreseeing a draconian decrease in revenue for 2020 due to a lack of ticket and concession sales, called for revenue sharing with players. This would have funneled more money to the owners, who happen to be some of the wealthiest men in North America and include the heirs to TD Ameritrade and Little Caesars, multiple media company owners, hedge fund and oil executives, and the Canadian equivalent of AT&T. Lost in the balance would be the players, who’d be subject to an increased risk of COVID-19 yet having their normal salaries halved to help the owners turn something merely close to a profit this year. Plans to restart baseball also included isolating players away from their families at remote locations in Arizona and Florida, an idea which doesn’t bode well with less pay and a higher chance to contract the virus. It’s important to remember that baseball players are employees who sign contracts, are unionized, and have the right to collective bargaining. If your employer said that they were going to cut your pay amidst a global pandemic just so the CEO would be able to turn a profit and you’d be at a higher risk of contracting the disease, you wouldn’t find that to be very fair, and wouldn’t support efforts to go back to work.
However, while the players do benefit from the lack of revenue sharing, it is very evident that many are disappointed by the lack of a season. Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Sean Doolittle are just three Nationals who have been vocal about this, and all three are proponents of a fair deal for the players. It’s also important to recognize that Commissioner Rob Manfred is not the reason why the season won’t be played, and that calls for his resignation or firing are wrong. Manfred is in charge of negotiations between the players’ union and the owners, and it’s increasingly evident that the owners are the ones who are holding up the negotiations for their precious revenue sharing. The fault of this probable lost season lies with them, not with Manfred.
However, from a fan’s perspective, this news is truly devastating. I started this piece off by talking about two baseball legends – Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. Babe Ruth was a hero to many Americans during the Great Depression of the early 30s, and brought smiles and hope to many people during the tough economic times. Jackie Robinson’s entry into the league served as a model for non-violent integration during a contentious time in American history – the very beginning of the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Like during their careers, we live in similar times. The fallout of the pandemic has led to economic hardships for millions of Americans, and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and too many other black and brown Americans by police has led to a reckoning about race relations in America. But unlike those times, we have no baseball to help us heal from those divisions and hardships we are all faced with at this time.
What’s even worse is that following the 2021 season, MLB’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires. The 2021 offseason will very likely look a lot like the last few weeks of back-and-forth between the owners and the union, and if things go awry like they did in this instance, there’ll be another lockout that could cause the 2022 season to be lost, as well. These failed negotiations set a very bad precedent for the upcoming CBA negotiations, as it shows the inability of the owners and players to find a middle ground compromise.
But this also makes the grim reality of baseball’s waning popularity more pressing for the league to sort out. Basketball is returning in August, with the Wizards playing at Disney World for the duration of the season. Soccer, football, and hockey have started to develop feasible plans for restarting games, and the Caps are poised to have a first-round bye in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Heck, John Oliver’s segment on sports and COVID-19 made many of my friends legitimately excited about marble racing games on Youtube. But lost in all of this is baseball. Sports fans, including baseball fans, who are eager to watch real action instead of the fourth month of ESPN’s coverage of the Tom Brady contract, will turn to these other sports instead of baseball. And as baseball loses popularity with younger generations, expect this dynamic to be exacerbated by the lack of a season amidst the pandemic.
So, the reality is that baseball’s near and distant futures are grim. But this moment presents a defining moment of truth for the sport. Is it likely that an agreement will be reached before it’s too late? No. But this moment allows the relevant people to learn from this instance and make sure it doesn’t happen again come 2021. Now is also the perfect time to change how the league works. Maybe allow fun bats or cleats, in a way for players to express themselves on the field while also playing the game they love. I’m a baseball purist and a vehement opponent of enacting a universal DH, but I will admit that sweeping changes to the institution of baseball might peak the interest of non-traditional baseball fans and help make the sport more popular. There are reasons why this moment is sad and strange. But this isn’t the first time baseball’s been cut short by a labor dispute, and it sure won’t be the last. I think we ought to embrace the potential for change and look forward to baseball’s eventual return, whenever it is safe and fair for both owners and players.