by JDCam 1.21.15
The name of Washington’s NFL team has been heavily scrutinized in recent months, with the controversy surrounding it coming to a slow rolling boil. Washington’s atrocious on field play, the off-field ‘Days of our Lives’ drama surrounding RG3 and his perceived emphasis on self-image over team and development as a QB have acted as the only distractors from Washington’s naming issue coming to a head. Washington’s problem has been only magnified by their geographical proximity to the nation’s political decision makers, who have not shied away from confronting the issue.
In May of 2014 Senator Harry Reid tweeted Commissioner Roger Goodell asking him if he believed he ‘had the authority at act against racism in the NFL the same way Mr. Silver did in the NBA’. Reid is of course referring to the lifetime ban from the NBA Silver handed out to former LA Clippers owner Roger Sterling after racially disparaging phone conversations were leaked to the press.
While both sides of the issue have enjoyed recent victories, the FCC ruling that Washington’s name was not offensive for broadcasting purposes but their name being ruled as disparaging by the US patent office, leading to the cancelling of several trademarks. Despite this back and forth there has been unwavering stoicism from Washington owner Dan Snyder, who was quoted as saying the team will ‘never change its name’.
Several players past and present have chimed in with their own opinions, including Jason Taylor who called for the team to change their name. Snyder himself has maintained that the word is inoffensive. After a 4 month research project in which he visited 26 tribal reservations he began a foundation to benefit Native Americans. While Snyder maintains that the foundation was set up to combat issues within Native communities around the country the cynical among us may see this as currying favor and attempting to deflect attention away from Washington’s naming issue. In Snyder’s open letter to the fans of Washington he frequently quotes Native Americans who are not offended by the word. If Snyder really wanted to convince the general public of the integrity of the word then why did he not seek out Native people who ARE offended by the word to varying degrees? If Snyder felt complete confidence in the name of his franchise – those would be conversations he would not only be comfortable having, but would pursue.
The word ‘r-ds-in’ originally seems to have been a self-referrer for Native Americans but was quickly appropriated by settlers for a much darker and more violent purpose, famously by author L. Frank. Baum in a pair of editorials calling for the, ‘extermination of all remaining Native Americans’. A plethora of examples also dwell in Earl Emmons volume ‘Redskin Rimes’. I would challenge even the most desensitized reader to take even a cursory glance and not be thoroughly offended. Needless to say the book is indicative of a period of history at the end of the 19th century where the word r-ds-in went from being ‘an identifying term to a derogatory slur’.
How could one reasonably argue that Washington’s name is not offensive given a history associated with millions of deaths, displacement and political manipulation as well as current circumstances that Snyder himself described in his findings as a ‘high incidence of alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide as well as a poverty rate of around 29% according to the census bureau’? A recent poll suggested that only around 11% of Americans found Washington’s name offensive, a statistic alarming in the apparent indifference it intimates.
Washington’s naming issue certainly isn’t the first brush with racial controversy for the franchise. In Richard C. Crepeau’s book ‘NFL Football – A History of America’s New National Pastime’, Crepeau details some of the issues that confronted the franchise in the early 1960s. In 1961 there was an increasing influx of African American players into the NFL, the league supporting 83 black players at that time. Washington was the only franchise to resist this transition. Then owner George Preston Marshall was quoted as saying ‘We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites’. Despite considerable pressure from the Kennedy administration Marshall continued his one man attempt to prevent full integration of African Americans in the NFL. Marshall was only forced to alter team policy when Washington began playing home games at D.C Stadium in December of 1961. The stadium was financed by public funds which prevented it being used by anyone actively practicing hiring discrimination.
Prominent writers have been drawn on the issue, such as Rick Reilly, who in a piece for ESPN argues that White America is assuming offense to the term on behalf of Native Americans. Reilly, similarly to Dan Snyder himself, speaks to an array of Native Americans who are either unoffended by the word or ‘wear it with fierce pride’, rather than seeking out those who might be offended to understand the nature of the offense. Reilly also asserts that if the name of Washington’s NFL team can be deemed offensive we should similarly revisit the names of other teams who names derive from Native America, such as the Kansas City Chiefs or Atlanta Braves. Hold the phone Rick, the R word and the word ‘chief’ or ‘brave’ don’t seem to carry them same level of offense. If those names do offend then that certainly is a discussion we should seek out, but to group the three terms as comparable seems tenuous at present. While Reilly cites a lot of potential offense at these other Native derived names with only one concrete example, these pale in comparison to a petition authored by 50 senators, a national media campaign (Change the Mascot) or a slew of research papers published on the subject as well as organized protests in Minneapolis.
Washington’s current naming issue and their checkered history of racial intolerance are exacerbated by the league’s refusal to be drawn into confronting the issue. Crepeau explains that ‘In the 1960s commissioner Pete Rozelle reacted by trying to avoid the problem (of Washington’s refusal to hire black players), saying that ‘it was a club matter not a league matter’. In a 2013 interview, commissioner Goodell was quoted as saying ‘if one person is offended, we have to listen. Ultimately, it’s Dan’s (Snyder) decision’. What an eerily similar nod to the past Goodell’s comments were. If the actions of Adam Silver and Goodell’s horrific handling of the Ray Rice situation have taught us anything, it is that major sports can have an equally positive and damaging impact on the most difficult to confront issues that plague society such as domestic abuse and racism. The NFL has shown in recent years a disappointing reticence to be a proactive agent of tolerance, justice and fairness, despite being in a position to do so. Dan Snyder, desperate to cling to the current name of the franchise for reasons unknown, seems to be stuck in his own bog of blind indifference. Roger Goodell could begin to mend the wounds of the NFL’s poor example in dealing with issues of social justice. Goodell has the opportunity to be the arbiter of positive social change as a leader of his sport by stepping outside the confines of what is known and comfortable. He should seize it. This team is in need of a name; right now it has a label.