I am a passionate fan and season-ticket holder of the Washington professional football franchise. In more than 31/2 years as a columnist, I have not opined publicly on whether the team should drop the name ‘Redskins’ on grounds that it offends Native Americans.
It’s time to take a stand. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is holding its first symposium on the topic Thursday. A new version of an old lawsuit challenging the trademark has a court hearing in March. D.C. Mayor Vince Gray (D) recently suggested the team would have to change its name if it ever wished to resume playing games in the city.
What do I think? Drumroll, please. . . .
OF COURSE the team should change the name. Duh. It’s the worst racial slur used as a team name in American sports. Dictionaries have labeled the word as “often offensive” at least since the 1970s.
The museum and the nation’s two leading Indian organizations, the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Education Association, have condemned it. Other groups that have opposed teams’ use of Native American names or imagery include the NCAA, the NAACP, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the American Psychological Association.
Not enough? You still think tradition and Dan Snyder’s pocketbook are more important? Much of the rest of the country thinks differently. Of the 3,000 Indian team names and mascots once used by sports teams at the professional, college and school levels, more than two-thirds have been scrapped.
To a large degree, our team keeps its name because so few Indians live in the D.C. area that we ignore their concerns. In states such as Oklahoma, New Mexico and Minnesota with larger Native American populations, most teams long ago dumped such objectionable names, specialists say.
(Before I go on, I want to give a shout-out to two of my fellow Washington Post columnists, Metro’s Courtland Milloy and Sports’ Michael Wise, for carrying this torch previously. Milloy has hammered the team relentlessly over it. Wise also has achieved so much expertise that he’s on a museum panel Thursday afternoon discussing it.)
I used to support changing the name to “Warriors,” which the team has sought in the past to trademark. That name could be used for a new arena league team (indoor football), or it might serve as a backup for the NFL franchise if the courts force a switch.
With “Warriors,” I thought we could keep the team’s familiar Indian head logo. Also, and this is important, it works in the song. We could easily adjust to singing “Hail to the Warriors” after touchdowns.
Alas, it wouldn’t be that easy. Native American advocates and their supporters have persuaded me that all Indian references have to go. That means a new logo, too.
I learned this first from my sister, who lives in Minneapolis, where Indian issues are more sensitive. She joined me several years ago at FedEx Field for a game against her team, the Vikings. She grimaced when the band marched out on the field wearing feather headdresses. “Oh, that is so offensive!” she said.
Eagle-feather headdresses play an important role in Indian spiritual rituals. Mimicking their use is taboo, she said, at least in Minnesota. (The band has apparently quietly dropped the headdresses.)
The team’s lawyers, defending the brand in federal trademark court, argue that the name was originally chosen in the 1930s to honor positive traits of Native Americans.
That might be so, but it’s certainly become a problem today, according to Kevin Gover, director of the American Indian museum. “It’s stereotyping to use Indians that way. They’ll say, ‘Indians are brave, strong and steadfast.’ We want to say Indians are also smart and pious and generous. If you honor us only for those [other] qualities, then you’re basically saying that’s all we’ve got,” he said.
“I don’t think the typical Washington football fan means us any harm at all. The problem is that the stereotypes do harm,” said Gover, who was previously an Arizona State University law professor and senior executive of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
What new name should we pick? We can decide later. “Warriors” is fine if we used a non-Indian logo. We could revive “Washington Federals,” used for a U.S. Football League team in the 1980s (although their record was terrible). I also like “Americans.” Or we could steal “Senators” from the old baseball team. Obvious drawback: The latter two wouldn’t work in the song.
The main thing is to lose what critics sometimes call “the R-word.” Fans would still support the team. Snyder has to look at this differently. He could sell us millions of dollars of new jerseys, hats and jackets to show our ongoing love.
For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.