Room For Debate:
Should The Washington Redskins Change Name?
FlaglerLive | June 22, 2014
The Washington Redskins were originally the Boston Redskins, so named in July 1933 because then-owner George Preston Marshall, one of the most racist men in American football history, thought his Boston Braves were not distinctive enough from one of Boston’s baseball team. Marshall had bought the Braves in 1932. “So much confusion has been caused by our football team wearing the same name as the Boston National League baseball club,” he told the Associated Press in a July 5, 1933 story published in the Hartford Courant, “that a change appeared to be absolutely necessary.” Marshall himself debunked back then what would become one of the team organization’s subsequent justifications for the name: that the team was named to honor its head coach, Lone Star Dietz. Not so, Marshall said: “The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins.”
Origins of a Racist Legacy
Marshall moved the Redskins to Washington in 1938. He was the George Wallace of the NFL. He championed segregation. He would say that his fans preferred watching white players. His was the southernmost team at the time. He catered to Washington socialites and thousands of racists who liked their society segregated. He knew there were black players great enough for his team. “Unlike the others, he was honest enough to admit that he simply didn’t want them around,” wrote Andy Piascik in “Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football in Their Own Words.”
The Los Angeles Rams started the desegregation movement in the NFL in 1946 by signing running back Kenny Washington and receiver Woody Strode. Three years later three NFL teams had black players. By 1955, all teams did. Except for the Redskins. Like Flagler County schools in Florida—Marshall’s team was the last to integrate, in 1962. That may not have happened even then had it not been for the intercession of John F. Kennedy, who found a segregated NFL team in the nation’s capital to be an offensive line of ironies he did not want to contend with. Bobby Mitchell, the black flanker, caught seven passes for 147 yards on Sept. 30, 1962, his first home game for the Redskins. He was joined by two other black players on the team’s roster: guard John Nisby and fullback Ron Hatcher. Outside the stadiums, fans brandished signs that read: “Keep the Redskins white.”
But the Redskins name endured—as did many other Native American icons in American sports: The Milwaukee Braves (until 1966), the Boston Braves (until 1952), the Cleveland Indians (until 1972, and again from 1980 to this day) and the Chicago Blackhawks (since 1964). Miami University in Ohio, in contrast, dropped its Redskins name in 1997, adopting the nickname Red Hawks instead. By then Stanford University had dropped its “Indians” name in favor of the Cardinal, and Marquette abandoned “Warriors” for “Golden Eagles.” The Wellpinit Board of Education, on the other hand–in the heart of Washington State–voted on June 18 to preserve the name of the Wellpinit High School Redskins.
The Redskins’ Position
In aletter to Congress, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell repeated the false claim that the team had been named for its head coach. He then went on to provide a defense for keeping the name: “The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context. For the team’s millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America’s most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect. Importantly, this positive meaning is shared by the overwhelming majority of football fans and Americans generally, including Native Americans. […] Indeed, the most recent detailed survey of Native Americans, conducted by the independent and highly respected Annenberg Public Policy Center, found that fewer than 10 percent considered the name objectionable. Among the general public, an Associated Press survey conducted just two months ago found that only 11 percent felt it should be changed.”
The MMQB, Sports Illustrated’s NFL specialty site, investigated the claim and found it to be false: “We found opponents of the name in 18 tribes: veterans of the U.S. military, lawyers, college students, cultural center employees, school volunteers and restaurant servers,” MMQBwrote. “Their viewpoints align with official statements from dozens of tribes or inter-tribal councils and from the NCAI, which represents more than 250 tribal governments at the Embassy of Tribal Nations. Many of these people wondered how, or if, their voices are being counted.”
“Redskins” in Native American Eyes
“Redskins” has a particularly pejorative connotation when uttered by whites. It is similar to a white owner calling a team the Niggers, the Negroes or the Coloreds.
“Seldom,” the Ojibwe writer David Treuer wrote in The Times on April 2, “has the entwined nature of ethics and money and influence been revealed as so unavoidably intestinal in its smell and purpose: to consume the material, to nourish the host and to expel the waste. American Indians — who do not see or refer to ourselves as “redskins” and who take great exception to the slur — are that waste.”
But there are Native Americans who love the name. “We don’t have a problem with [the name] at all,” Stephen Dodson, whom the Washington Redskins claimed is a full-blooded Inuit chief, said in an interview the NFL commissioner then quoted in his letter to Congress. “It’s actually a term of endearment that we would refer to each other as.” Dodson, it turned out, was neither full-blooded nor an Inuit chief.
The Patent Office’s Decision on the Redskins Trademark
On June 17, the U.S. Patent Office revoked the trademark registration for the Washington Redskins for the second time in 15 years. The patent office had done so in 1999. But a court overturned that decision. In the past, the Patent Office has blocked the trademarking of the word Heeb, finding it disparaging to Jews, and the word Khoran, which an Armenian business wanted to use to name a liquor. The Patent Office found the name too close to Koran, and therefore too intentionally inflammatory to Muslims who don’t drink. Just last year, the Patent Office blocked the trademarking of a rock band’s name, the Slants, calling it offensive to Asians. So the Patent Office has a long record of intervening to protect racial groups.
Nevertheless, the loss of the trademark registration does not mean that the team cannot use the name—or keep others from using it. As First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza wrote for CNN, “the team is free to continue to call itself the ‘Redskins.’ Moreover, it can still sue you for selling counterfeit Washington Redskins gear, and it can still block someone from starting a Washington Redskins dodgeball team. The Washington Redskins still have trademark rights, and strong rights at that.” So what’s the big deal? The trademark registration, Randazza continued, “gives you a few statutory presumptions in the event that you go to court over enforcement of your trademark. It gives a presumption of ownership and validity. In simple terms, the cancellation only means that if there is a trademark infringement lawsuit, the Washington Redskins team is going to have to pay a bit more in attorneys’ fees to win its case.”
In 2003, a federal judge threw out the Patent Office’s 1999 cancellation of six Redskins trademarks and ruled that the Redskins could keep their name because activists had not provided enough evidence that the name was disparaging to Indians. “At best, this evidence demonstrates that Pro-Football’s fans and the media continue to equate the Washington Redskins with Native Americans and not always in a respectful manner,” U .S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote. Proponents of keeping the name have seized on the decision as vindication.
Fans supportive of the name consider opponents to be advocates of political correctness run amok. Proponents use the same justifications for “Redskins” as southerners do when they fly the Confederate flag: “Hail to the Redskins — the team song — says it all,” Kevin Keeney, signer of a petition to keep the name, wrote. “The name ‘Redskins’ in this case is meant to be a source of pride and it honors Native Americans. Also, remember the team name is ‘Washington Redskins’ not just ‘Redskins.’ It’s about football, clearly not some political statement that the liberal media would like you to believe. And the team name represents, and reminds us, of team spirit and strength and courage, and proud heritage — and that is what this football team and our Native Americans have in common!”
Opponents of course don’t buy that line of thinking, seeing in it a veil for a defense of offensive stereotypes used overwhelmingly by white people. “The team’s name is racist and derogatory,” Amanda Blackhorse, a Native American who’s worked to ban the name, said. “I’ve said it before and I will say it again — if people wouldn’t dare call a Native American a ‘redskin’ because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?”
The Redskins, the third-most valuable franchise in the NFL, are a $1.7 billion business that depends heavily on merchandising its name. But the change itself would not be costly. “The biggest cost is not developing a new name and mark,” Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates, whose past clients include the NFL, told the Washington Post. “The biggest cost by far is applying it to all the points of touch that a brand like the Redskins exists on: merchandise, signage, training facilities and the stadium. That would be several million dollars, probably under $5 million. They can do it aggressively in six months, sometimes even less. Sometimes it can take a couple years to do the transition.” It will cost the franchise more to fight the change in court, he says.
The organization is resisting the name change mostly out of pride at this point. Sports talking head Al Michaels said Dan Snyder, the owner of the team, said the name would change “over my dead body.”
Jon Stewart put the case more caustically on June 19: “So your argument in keeping your name is, ‘You can’t just come in here and take over our ancestral property’ is what you’re saying. I guess what you’re saying is we had it first. It’d be like this. If a group of people taught you how to survive a harsh winter and then you invited that group of people to a feast to show your gratitude to them for helping you to survive. And then after dessert let’s say you killed them and took their land. And then years later to commemorate that day you held an annual feast that included a sporting event in which one of the participating teams’ names was a derogatory term for the original people that you had killed.”
So: should the Washington Redskins continue to be the Washington Redskins?