Bows, Arrows & Racism: The Push for A Redskins Name Change

No matter how hard people fight to keep it away, the race card always finds its way into the spotlight, especially in professional sports. Cam Newton being a black quarter back, the Donald Sterling debacle, Lebron, Derek Rose and others bringing the black lives matter movement to the courts, race issues in sports is inevitable. Trying to keep race issues out of sports is like trying to keep sand off you at the beach, it’s going to happen.

An issue that’s made its way to headlines over the past few year a couple times and has people of all titles lending an opinion is the offensiveness of the Washington Redskins name. The battle for a name change has ranged for a number of years in the form of protest and public outcry but not until recently has the battle turned to the courtroom. Over 115 professional organizations have voiced their opinions on this issue and the largest organization is The National Congress of American Indians with almost 1.2 million members. Journalist Theresa Vargas writes on the trademark disputes:

In addition to picketing and other forms of direct protest, opponents took legal action to cancel the trademarks held by the team. On June 18, 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) again voted to cancel the Redskins federal trademark registrations, considering them “disparaging to Native Americans”. On July 8, 2015 the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, VA upheld the TTAB decision (2014).

The push for a name change has certainly caught the attention on the public eye in recent years with most efforts being shot down, and no official action being taken.

Markovitz (2006) examined race in sports through “collective memory.” Markovitz defines collective memory as “how society remembers certain acts that reinforce an ideology” (2006). He says that an important aspect of collective memory is the mass media due to its ability to provide most of what people know about history and the first writing of history. “Collective memory works here as a lens: It encourages readers to focus on the case in ways that require evaluating evidence quite differently than do the mass media”(2006). As the Redskins themselves battle trademark disputes, a strong collective memory could aid them in the courtroom. The most recent developments in courtroom fall in favor of the Redskins name remaining the same. The questions remains what kind of collective memory rhetoric is being used to fuel the Redskins name change debate on both sides and what will we be calling the Redskins when all is said and done?

There are many arguments for and against the name change some of those speaking out against a change in name say that the name isn’t racist but its merely political correctness going too far, supported by none other than Mike Ditka who claims “it’s just all the political idiots in America going to far.” The opinions have ranged from a very large spectrum, from fans all the way to the top, to President Obama himself. Obama weighed in on the issue saying:

If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it (2013).

Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs didn’t seem to be bothered by the name, he responded saying:

Everything I’ve known or been a part of has been Redskins. I never, ever thought of it as anything negative; it’s all been a positive…it would be wrong to change the team’s name (2013).

Despite opinions being shared from all over the map, fans are looking for a concise answer, and not the feelings on another commentator. These are the people who are supposedly being offended enough by the name to speak out. . As we know from history people love to intervene and give their input on things that don’t necessarily concern them, when the only opinion that really matters is that of the Native Americans. Surprisingly Native Americans have weighed in on both sides of the issue, including Peter MacDonald Sr. President of the Navajo Code Talkers Association, and a Native American himself. MacDonald said, “we never thought of it as a slur” (2014). But then Native American input on the other side of isle surfaces, such as Eni Faleomavageo, the American Samoan delegate to congress who was quotes saying, “It is a racist, derogatory term, and patently offensive to Native Americans” (2014). So essentially the sword cuts both ways here, although the divide isn’t exactly equal.

When we refer back to Markovitz and his ideas of collective memory, we know that societal views reinforce ideologies. Although the issue does fall on both sides of the isle with Native Americans the latest polls suggest that up to 67% of the Native American population belief that the name is offensive or racist and should be changed. Many have also spoken out in regards to the argument being made that if the Redskins name should be changed then so should team names like The Chiefs, The Indians, The Warriors, and The Vikings. Journalist Chris Hoenig wrote:

Major League Baseball has two American Indian–named teams. The Atlanta Braves –the same franchise the Washington Redskins shared a stadium with in Boston—are known for their “Tomahawk Chop” at games, and the Cleveland Indians have had their name since 1915. The defending Stanley Cup champions are the Chicago Blackhawks, whose logo of an American Indian in profile was ranked the top logo in the sport in 2008 (2013).

The main argument being that the names of these other teams are terms of respect, these names honor tradition of the particular figures they’re portraying as opposed to the Redskins name which is not. The claim is that the term Redskins is actually a slur that and doesn’t honor any figures at all, but instead shows them in a degrading light.

In the Markovitz piece he talks about coming to terms with the traces of collective memory in order to understand the nature of why people make the decisions that they do. Markovitz claims:

Only by reckoning with the traces of collective memories of struggles over race and gender is it possible to being to come to terms with the nature of the disparate reactions

Markovitz says that they only way we can understand where people are coming from involving decisions on race we have to understand their cultural pasts and societies general view on the group or race in particular. The people who are against the Redskins name change are pulling their collective memories from an era of colonization and early America, while the other half is pulling their collective memory from race relations with Native Americans over the last 100 years. In the last 100 years we don’t usually associate Native Americans receiving the majority of America’s racism, we actually barely associate Native Americans as hardly being prejudiced at all. This method does allow a clear view of both sides, but it also shows that the majority of America has moved on from the collective memory of an early America.

In the end it’s really all about what is going to make the most money, that’s what it has always been about. Fans don’t want a new team name with no tradition, it wouldn’t feel the same, fans would feel abandonment and disconnect to their team. Dan Snyder can be faced by a million angry protestors every single day, but until Roger Goodell forces his hand or some kind of major legislative action is taken; you’re not going to see a name change any time soon. We live in an era where everyone is offended by something; it’s almost impossible to satisfy everyone. The Redskins name remained revered with no upset for over 50 years, and now in recent years there is uproar about it. In my honest opinion, I don’t think Dan Snyder really cares at all, the guy can listen to all the protestors he wants, but the magnitude of actually rebranding an entire franchise is astronomical. Snyder himself was quoted saying:

We will never change the name of the team,” Snyder told the newspaper in an interview this week. “As a lifelong Redskins fan, and I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.

The process of getting the players new gear, and restructuring Fed Ex field and of course, the merchandise, you have over 50 years of Redskins fans out there wearing Redskins gear and have been saying the same name. Do we really expect the fans in Washington to change “hail to the redskins” the battle song they’ve been singing for decades.

The argument keeps coming up that the name Redskins doesn’t carry any kind of tradition to it on the surface, or in the literal meaning of the word, but if you ask the fans in Washington I think you’ll get a very different response. There are a number of polls and the decision go back and forth a remains neck and neck. If you ask the fans they’ll tell you that when they hear the name, race issues is the last thing in their mind, the name is now only associated with a football team and not a slur at all. The name is associated with 5 super bowl appearances and 3 wins, Joe Theismann, the greatest passing leader in franchise history, John Riggins, the greatest rushing leader of all time, and Joe Gibbs the coach with the most wins of all time. Hearing the name Redskins resonates so much more to the fans and the football community then literal meaning. In an interview with fans numerous claimed it is years of tradition, a tradition that would be besmirched forever if the name were to change. If anything, I do believe the name honors Native Americans, because every time the team takes the field they’re playing for that name. Joe Theismann himself put it best:

I can just tell you that when I put that uniform on, and I put that helmet on with the Redskin logo on it, I felt like I was representing more than the Washington Redskins: I was representing the great Native American nations that exist in this country (2014).

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By Jack Matteo

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