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.