The debate is on again. Should the Washington Redskins, the National Football League franchise in our nation’s capital, change its mascot?
Obviously, if you look at their logo – an Indian with feathers in his hair (see inset) – the name is about Native Americans and, specifically, the color of their skin.
Which is, when you think about it … unthinkable.
It’s particularly jarring that in Washington, D.C. – the planet’s Political Correctness capital – the NFL team name should be about the skin color of a race of people.
Football fans are numb to it. We’ve been saying “Washington Redskins” for as long as we can remember, since the days of Sonny Jurgensen and John Riggins, since Doug Williams was the Super Bowl MVP and Joe Thiesman’s leg snapped and Santana Moss torched the Cowboys again.
Cowboy fans have been loving to hate the Redskins since the days of George Allen and Tom Landry.
The team actually has a history of racism. They were the last NFL team to integrate. The Kennedy administration in 1961 threatened to ban them from playing in their publicly-owned stadium unless they allowed black players on the team. A newspaper writer of that era, Shirley Povich, penned the famous line that “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”
I know that’s ancient history. The first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl (Williams) did so in Washington, and today they have the most exciting QB in the league in Robert Griffin III, also black.
But just imagine if the team name was the Washington Whities, the Beltway Blackskins or the D.C. Darks – fill in the blank with any color. How long would that stand?
So how does “Redskins” stand?
Tom Van Riper of Forbes magazine says it will stand forever because of … money.
The franchise, he said, has strong brand loyalty that’s all tied up with history and tradition that transcends racial stereotypes.
Recently 10 members of the U.S. Congress – the Congressional Native American Caucus – sent a letter to the Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, as well as the CEO of Fedex (who owns the stadium’s naming rights), the commissioner and the league’s other 31 teams, stating that the Redskins name is offensive.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded quickly, saying basically that it’s not offensive because no offense is intended.
Van Riper quoted a snippet of Goodell’s response: “The Washington Redskins name has … from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context.”
“If you walk around and call people redskins, it’s offensive,” researcher Robert Passikoff told Van Riper. “But when it’s for the Washington Redskins, it’s not offensive.”
Forbes says the Redskins franchise is worth about $1.6 billion, and Passikoff attributes about $131 million of that value to brand recognition and loyalty.
I guess if there’s enough money involved, the feelings and sensitivities of people matter less.
That was certainly one of the hangups back in the 1850s, when the South contemplated freeing all those slaves, for whom their owners had paid.
It’s why Pharoah kept having second thoughts about freeing the Israelites, whose servitude provided an awful lot of useful labor in his kingdom.
Money has been behind the exploitation of people throughout history, from the diamond mines of Africa to the rice paddies of China, the cotton fields of Texas to the coal mines of Kentucky.
Granted, no one’s taking advantage of any Native Americans in D.C. No one’s forcing anyone into labor or stealing their land. I can even see the argument that the mascot is a warrior – a source of pride and power.
The thing is, the Native Americans say it’s a stereotype. They find it offensive, and that’s their call. They’re entitled not to have their heritage belittled that way.
The Redskin needs to go away for the same reason Little Black Sambo and the Frito Bandito went away.
They’re not an homage to a culture, they’re a stereotype created for the purpose of making money. This issue is bigger than football, bigger, even, than money. It’s the way you treat people in an “enlightened” culture.
Our culture has come a long way, but we still have a ways to go.
At my former newspaper office, a wall behind my desk was covered with famous headlines from history – the sinking of the Titanic, the 1929 Wall Street crash, the Kennedy assassination. There was also one about the end of World War II, after the U.S. dropped two nuclear weapons on Japan. In huge type, it said, “JAPS QUIT!”
I never thought about it until one day, I was giving a tour for a group of exchange students and I brought them into my office for a visit. That’s when a young Japanese girl looked at the wall and said, “What does this mean, ‘JAPS QUIT!’?”
I found it hard to explain. I think I said something along the lines of “That’s the way they talked in 1945. We would not write such a headline today.”
I feel the same way about Redskins. There was a time when we talked like that in this country.
Today, it’s getting harder and harder to explain.
Bob Buckel is executive editor of the Wise County Messenger.