As the summer of COVID-19 and social change rolls on with no end in sight, there are renewed calls for professional sports teams to take a hard look at nicknames that are deemed offensive to Native American populations.
Team names like Braves, Chiefs, Indians and Redskins have long been considered offensive to some Native Americans. The origin of the team names in many cases were first set up in the early parts of the 20th Century as part of imperialist nostalgia, and the myth of the vanishing race. In both instances, the belief being that the best way to honor the nostalgia of the vanquished was by using names and imagery to remind people of them.
Of course, the problem with hanging one’s nickname hat on imperialist nostalgia, and the myth of the vanishing race, when it comes to Native American terms, is that the Native American populations are very much still among us. They remain despite efforts throughout American history to wipe them out, or relegate them to out of sight, and out of mind reservations. So, the use of a population as a mascot becomes problematic when one tries to adhere to the “all men (and women) are created equal” wording of the founding fathers.
The efforts to remove Native American nicknames and imagery from professional sports pop up about every five years or so.
Each time the issue arises, it results in the teams providing survey results that show that the majority of people like the names just the way they are. The courts tend to side with the teams over the lawsuits brought by Native American plaintiffs, and life as the teams know it goes on.
In fact, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder famously told a reporter from USA Today back in 2013 that he would “NEVER” change the name of the team that he grew up rooting for, and became owner of. The full quote by Snyder being, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
While Snyder remained steadfast, the Cleveland Indians on the other hand, made some strides by removing the “Chief Wahoo” logo from their uniforms in 2019. The Chief Wahoo logo had long been considered a racial stereotype by many Native American groups.
While the removal of Chief Wahoo was considered a positive, albeit long overdue step, fast forward to 2020, and the Redskins and Indians have agreed to take a look at going a step further and changing their nicknames.
So why the change of heart? The company that pays millions of dollars a year for the naming right on the stadium where the Redskins play, FedEx, sent a letter telling the team that they needed to change the name and viola a committee was formed. Several people who own minority stakes in the Redskins have also said that they want to sell their shares in the team in what could be considered “a distancing themselves from an unpopular situation” scenario.
While one always wants to think that corporate decisions to right societal wrongs are driven by wanting to get on the right side of history, the sad truth is that in many cases the only way to drive change is to threaten the bank accounts of team owners.
In Washington’s case, the threat of losing millions of dollars a year in revenue turned the owner’s “we will NEVER change the name, end of story period,” to “we are looking into it and have formed a committee to explore potential name changes.”
The District of Columbia has also said that they will not consider allowing the Redskins to move their operations from Virginia to D.C without changing their name.
Now before we go any further, and in the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that I was born in the same city as Dan Snyder, and I grew up as a Washington Redskins fan. I have bled burgundy and gold for as long as I can remember. I have cheered for the Redskins during seasons of feast, as well as seasons of famine.
In fact, I once led an entire elementary school in the singing of “Hail to the Redskins” using a homemade megaphone during a pre-Super Bowl rally in the school auditorium.
To take my fandom even further, I even still use the same Redskins key chain that was given to me by my seventh grade science teacher, Mr. Hall.
Back in 2013, I pointed out that there were Native American schools who used Redskins as their team nickname. I also noted that for all of the people who find the team name offensive, there are just as many, if not more who find the team name a part of childhood memories and do not see any racial overtones associated with it. Therefore, any change in team name needs to both honor the storied history of the franchise on the field, as well as ensuring that it offends as few people as possible.
Seven years later, there is still no perfect solution that will make everybody happy. But, unlike in the past, it appears more likely that the first football team that I followed is headed for a Prince style name change along with the Cleveland Indians.
Of course, Washington D.C. is no stranger to having people call for names of their franchises to be changed. When I lived in Maryland, I followed the Washington Bullets. Shortly after moving to Florida people were up in arms about such a violent name for a franchise so the Washington Bullets became the Washington Wizards.
I say this not to try to compare the use of the term “bullets” with terms that are considered racial slurs by certain populations. Instead, I state it to point out that there are examples of teams changing their names and the world didn’t stop spinning.
The recent social justice movement is exposing deep scars and tears in the fabric of the nation. There were many incidents of injustice from the time that settlers from Europe first came to the New World. We are not going to fix those issues overnight, and we cannot completely erase the past by renaming everything and removing statues of things we find offensive.
Tearing down statues of Christopher Columbus, and dumping them into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, does not solve anything long term. It only serves to enrage a base that sees such actions as vandalism instead of activism.
It is common in many countries during a regime change that all statues and symbols of the past leadership are torn down. That can be a short-sighted approach to things and does not really solve the core issues.
Other countries have moved statues and monuments of their past into closed areas where the proper perspective of the history of the events can be explained from both sides. These monument gardens preserve the past, while also giving new insight into why things have changed.
The past, both good and bad, is what brought us to this very moment and made the country what it is, warts and all. In our efforts to right the ship we need to ensure that we do not over correct to the point that in another 50-years the ship has to be turned back in another direction through a modified form of imperialist nostalgia.
While we do not need to hold things in the high regard that they may have once been held, we need to ensure that history is remembered so that it can be learned from, in order that the more shameful parts of history are not repeated.
Historical course changing moments do not come around every day. So, it is up to people on all sides of the issue to ensure that we get this right whether that be renaming sports teams, or ensuring that people are free to walk down the street without having to look over their shoulder, or think they will be harassed because of the way they look or talk.
As a society we also need to ensure that the Native American populations receive the same access to quality health care as the rest of society. This is especially true during the global COVID-19 pandemic where Native American populations have been hit especially hard.
The Washington Redskins turn 88-years-old this week. By the time they turn 89-years-old, it is highly likely that they will go by a different name.
Part of me can see that it is time for a change. The rest of me will mourn the loss of childhood memories now tainted by the understanding that a simple team nickname I wore proudly and cheered even louder for, is now considered by some to be a symbol of hate to be removed from the public space in the name of racial equality.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I am suddenly reminded of a Robert Frost poem.
Copyright 2020 R. Anderson