The chorus of calls for changing the name of Washington's professional football team continues to grow. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the National Coalition of Civil Rights, half of the U.S. Senate, and the President have each voiced their support for a name change. A regional umbrella church group is even calling for a boycott. For me, as a Washington, D.C, area resident for the past 28 years, I have never felt comfortable rooting for the team because of its name. Many arguments have been made to keep the name, but none stand up to even a simple critique. Here is my view on each.
The word “redskins” is not racist; this is political correctness run amok. Nearly every modern American dictionary classifies the word as “racist” or “patently offensive.” The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has now twice ruled the word is disparaging. Random House Dictionary listed it as racist in 1966. The Oxford English Dictionary says it is “dated or offensive.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary says it is “usually offensive.” No source classifies the word as an honor or term of respect. “Political correctness” has always played a role in the social and cultural development of our country. We have, thankfully and belatedly, virtually banned the use of the “n-word” and avoided or stopped using derogatory terms such as "queer" and "retard," for example. Why is it that the ones who cry “political correctness” are usually never the focus of it?
It is part of the history of Washington, D.C. True, “redskins” was the name of the team when it moved to D.C. in 1937. But just because something is historical doesn’t make it right or insulate it from change. Examples include: Jim Crow laws, non-integrated sports teams, Confederate flags on government buildings, a segregated military, voting rights for women, marriage, and the Washington Wizards.
Why bring it up now? This is not a new issue, it is just receiving more attention. NCAI, the umbrella organization of roughly 165 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., started its efforts to eliminate negative stereotypes in 1968. A group of Indian leaders sent a letter in 1972 to the NFL president stating the name was disparaging. The first lawsuit was filed in 1992. The NCAI passed a resolution in 1993 calling for a name change, and the NAACP did the same in 1999. The U.S Commission on Human Rights called for an end to such mascots in 2001.
What’s the harm? it's only a word. A newly released report from the Center for American Progress shows that such words create an “unwelcome and hostile learning environment” for American Indian students that “directly results in lower self-esteem and mental health.” Imagine if you were considered a mascot and not a person, someone to be caricatured on the sidelines for others' enjoyment and profit. How would you feel seeing a banner which read: “Send them on a Trail of Tears!,” an event which resulted in the removal or death of thousands of your ancestors, as was displayed at a recent high school game.
If we change the name of the Redskins, what about the Cowboys, Saints, and Vikings? These names have never been used to vilify or denigrate an entire group of people, and this argument only minimizes the negative impact words can have. Being real “Cowboys” is a professions and is no more offensive to those who settled the West than “Saints” is to religious people. “Redskins” was used as a way to de-humanize American Indians just as other words are still used to debase racial and ethnic groups: the “n-word” for African Americans, “wetback” for Latinos, “Kike” for Jews, and “Wop” for Italians, for example. The Florida State University Seminoles exist today because the university consulted with the Seminole Nation, a sovereign tribe, and agreed on how the name would be used.
The first coach was an Indian, and the team was named in his honor, so it’s okay. Historian Linda M. Waggoner’s account of “Lone Star” Dietz’, the team’s first coach, found that he faced a federal trial for falsely representing himself as an Indian to avoid the draft. When that trial ended in a hung jury, he later plead no contest to the same charges and served 30 days in jail. George Preston Marshall, the original owner, dismissed claims that the team name was linked to Dietz’s heritage. In a 1933 comment in the Hartford Courant: “So much confusion has been caused by our football team wearing the same name as the Boston National League baseball club … that a change appeared to be absolutely necessary. The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as many suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins.” Other sources have found the name was a marketing ploy so the team could keep the logo and play off the popularity of Indian culture. Having coaches and players dress in “Indian-themed” uniforms and wear face paint only contributed to the marketing of the team.
There are schools on Indian reservations that use “Redskins” as their mascot. Why is that okay? True, there are a number of high schools on Indian reservations that use this mascot. In reality, the vast majority of high schools using this word have now changed it. When an Indian school uses that mascot, it is one they have adopted as their own, not one that a multi-billion dollar corporation making millions in profits uses to market a football team. The word is still disparaging, no matter who uses it.
The name is meant to honor Native Americans. Many Native American do not consider this word to be an “honor,” especially given the historical connection with the payment to bounty hunters for scalps and other body parts of “Redskins.” Combine that with some of the items that are sold with the team logo, such as beer koozies, trash cans, door mats, diapers, and G-strings, it is clear that the word is not used in an “honorific” way. Did the “Hogettes,” people dressed in feathered headdresses wearing pig snouts, honor American Indians? Are women dressed in skin tight shorts and halter tops dancing to drumbeats on the sidelines respecting Native culture? Did Chief Zee, a non-Indian wearing a replica of a headdress and carrying a tomahawk, honor Indians, or make fun of them?
The team logo was designed by an Indian therefore it can’t be racist. One of the many logos used by the team was designed by a then former leader of the NCAI. But this is not the same as saying you agree with the name. Recently the team brought out a group of Native American Code Talkers to honor them at a game. Each wore a jacket given by the team right before the ceremony. Some took this to mean they supported the team name. Just a few days later the national organization of surviving Code Talkers passed a resolution calling for a name change.
There are other issues more important to AI/AN. Indian country continues to have big problems with substance abuse, diabetes, and unemployment. Each of these issues requires long term, sustained efforts involving tribes, the government and the private sector. Changing the name requires the action of only one person—the owner.
But surveys say… Supporters like to cite a 10-year-old survey of Native Americans which found that 90 percent had no problem with the name. They don’t, however, point out a survey in 2014 where two-thirds of respondents living on a reservation supported a name change. Opinions change over time as more people pay attention to and become educated about an issue.
A name change will cost too much money. A recent article in The New York Times titled, “Redskins is Bad Business,” shows just the opposite. “Controlling for the other variables, we found an insignificant effect on revenue in the year immediately following a name change, and a positive revenue trend in the subsequent years.” Does anyone doubt that fans of the team will buy a new jersey and all the related paraphernalia, making even more money for the owner?
The facts are clear. Support the team. Change the name.
Matthew Murguia is a 25-year career federal employee living in the Washington, D.C. area. Since his teens, he has been an advocate for equal rights for racial, ethnic and sexual minority communities.