Name Calling: The Washington Redskins’ Controversy

This is not a new issue.   But, it’s appropriate to revisit the controversy over the Washington Redskins’name.

First, let me say I occasionally watch and enjoy football but I am not a rabid (fantasy football devotee, jersey-wearing, Sunday and Monday night football appointment TV viewer) fan.  Therefore, I am much less emotionally entangled in the ups and downs of the play and management of the Washington football franchise, or any other franchise for that matter.    I do, however, monitor diversity issues, am an engaged conversant in the discourse about the impact of sports on culture, and am personally offended by racially-charged language.    So, this isn’t about football.

A Tidbit of History

The Redskins name was transferred to Washington, DC in 1937 when the Boston Redskins relocated their franchise—they won their first league championship that year.   Owner and President, George Preston Marshall was a maverick in the league, a big personality and an innovator.  He was the first to see the potential of TV/radio broadcasts of his team’s games, initiated the idea of the gala half-time show and understood sports marketing.
Through his efforts he built a devoted fan base for Washington, DC  football.

Marshall is also often described as racist.  He may have been.   But what we know from his own words is he was a proponent of segregation and not an apologist for his race-based stances.    The Washington team was the last in the professional football league to allow black players on the roster—that was in 1962, and
integration of the team involved pressure from both the federal government and the football league’s leadership before Marshall acquiesced.

Upon his death in 1969, Marshall’s will stipulated the establishment of  the Redskins Foundation charged with grant
making that would benefit the health, education and welfare of children in the Washington, DC area; a noble mission except for the caveat that no funds should go to “any purpose which supports the principle of racial integration in any form.”   To the credit of the foundation’s leadership,  this last request was ignored when the foundation was finally established in 1972 and the renamed George Preston Marshall foundation has supported a diverse group of child advocacy, cultural and education organizations.

What’s in a Name?

There is some debate about where the name “Redskins” came from.  To my mind, its origins don’t matter. What’s more important is that a group of Native American activists have engaged in a 13-year legal battle to get rid of the offensive name.   These activists claim the name is disparaging and violates a federal trademark law.  Three trademark judges agreed (1999); but were overturned by a federal district court judge (2003); and an appeal (Harjo, et. al  vs. Pro Football, Inc.) was denied by the
U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.   These activists posit the R-word is on par with the use of the N-word.  I’m African American and offended by the latter so if my Indian brothers and sisters say the R-word has deeply disparaging connotations for their people, I believe them and support their efforts to discontinue the use of this name.  There is a survey, conducted in 2004 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, reporting only 9% of Native American are offended by the Washington football team’s name.    Seven years later, I bet that percentage of disapproval has increased and it would be great if the Annenberg staff would refresh its survey.

But, here’s my question:  If a organized group makes you aware that a very public name used by your organization is an historical racial slur and offensive to the people to which it refers, why would you continue the use of the name?

Opposition to Change

The Economic Argument:   A name change will be an economic hardship to the team.  Is that true?  I don’t think so.   In fact there
might be money to be made all around.  Forbes Magazine reports the Washington Redskins are the second most lucrative NFL franchise (second only to the Dallas Cowboys-how ironic) valued at $1.5 billion in 2009 and with $345 million in revenue in that same year.   The Washington team regularly tops the NFL’s
attendance records.  So, won’t loyal fans buy updated jerseys, more towels, and additional decals with a new name/logo?  And won’t that make the original, vintage, merchandise more valuable?  I’m sure a name change won’t decrease beer and hot dog sales.

The Legacy Argument:  The team is an institution in Washington, DC (and therefore its name is sacrosanct).
Yes, the city loves its football team and that adoration seems to cross social strata.   But sometimes change by legacy systems is necessary (and often good) when it negatively impacts a specific group.   Examples abound but a few are:  the U.S. military’s policy on racial segregation (changed in 1948), Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (changed in 2011) and increased opportunities for female athletic participation in college and high school sports through Title IX (1972).

The Not-Bowing-to-Political-Correctness Argument:    It goes: only, ultra-liberals are bothered by this issue, everyone else thinks it’s unimportant; and it’s a slippery slope, if you change the
R-word than you have to change the names of other team franchises.  Consider this:  if it were not for the use of this word by
the Washington football team, it would rarely be used in everyday conversation except to describe one variety of potatoes.   The social relevance and appropriateness of words do change over time.  The N-word is a good example of this.   But, it comes down to this for me (and I know this is a repetition).   When a word (or description or characterization) is painful to a group of people and the group asks you to refrain from using the word almost all of us would.   It’s not about being politically correct as much as it is being respectful and considerate of the feelings of other human beings.

3rd and 10

There’s another trademark legal challenge by Native American
activists winding its way through the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board system, Blackhorse vs. Pro Football, Inc.   Currently,
testimony is scheduled to conclude in the summer of 2012.   But, like the Harjo case, appeals will likely drag out the process many more years.    Meanwhile, the Washington football team is under stress.   I know I said this isn’t about football, but maybe a  name change (generated by a fan-naming contest) could give the team a new, winning spirit.  Notwithstanding, the flaws of George Preston Marshall, a person with his skills at marketing would
be very helpful in a renaming/re-branding campaign for his beloved team.   And it would be the right thing to do.

Links to Other Information on
this topic which I found interesting

1.  Indian Country article

2.  2004 Associated Press Report on Annenberg Research

3.  Ryan Michael Dinkgrave Blog

4.  Erik Todd Dellums Blog

5.  Youtube Video-he PC Argument
on the Redskins’ name controversy: Archie Bunker Lives!

Note: Unfortunately, I think this guy represents a lot of  people’s perspective on this issue.  As he says in this 5-minute video:  “Whine, whine, whine; pout, pout, pout.”

8 thoughts on “Name Calling: The Washington Redskins’ Controversy

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  4. Cheryl, thank you so much for your perspective on this! I’m Muscogee and this is such a painful issue for me. I teach a race, class, gender undergrad class and will be using this blog next semester. You said it so eloquently and deconstructed the arguments against a name change so well. Thanks again for being an ally!

  5. Well done, Cheryl. I would underscore that plenty of teams have changed names — granted, usually due to relocation — and have done just fine. In the NFL, the Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Titans; in the NHL, the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche… and on and on and on.

    And speaking of DC, the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals.

    It’s just not that scary to change names.

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