If Washington Redskins want their name to honor tradition, they simply need to put it in the past


In a sporting environment that has seen social integration and tolerance in its locker rooms for the past three generations, it seems like a detail of unfinished business from that past to finally upgrade the NFL’s Washington Redskins nickname to something that isn’t a relic of America’s history of racial discrimination, but it is still imperative it must be done.

The move last NFL season pressuring the league’s Washington D.C. franchise to change their nickname from “Redskins” hasn’t been the first time the team’s nickname had come under protest – and certainly won’t be the last unless they enter the 2014 season without it.

Team Owner Dan Snyder, with whom ultimately the decision lays, has remained firm and adamant that fans of the team will be rooting for the “Redskins” for the foreseeable future.

In a letter written to season-ticket holders in October, he cited a handful of reasons for keeping the name. Among them included…

–          The team’s first coach and four players on the franchise’s inaugural season were of Native American descent.

–          In 1971, the team consulted Native Americans when designing the team’s still-current logo.

–          A poll conducted by the Annenburg Public Policy Center of 1,000 self-identified Native Americans showed that roughly 90 percent of them weren’t offended by the nickname.

–          Various media reports concurring with the poll showing numerous tribal representatives near and distant from the team’s Landover, Md. headquarters.

Additionally, the letter cited the team’s 80-plus year tradition of having the name, as Snyder and fans have built as a sub-identity of the team’s fanbase.

The history of the nickname’s origin is relatively innocuous. In 1932, the NFL awarded its Boston franchise to George Preston Marshall. As was a typical practice in the NFL at the time, Marshall got the nickname for their team by copying the baseball team with whom they shared their stadium. In this case, it was the Boston Braves. The following season, the Boston (football) Braves moved their home games to Fenway Park, still home today to the Boston Red Sox. To avoid confusion, the football team changed their name from the Braves to Redskins, which not only kept the connection to a Native American theme, but also kept the “Red” in common.

In 1938, due to low attendance and Marshall’s other business interests in the nation’s capital, Marshall moved the franchise to Washington D.C., keeping the nickname.

One twist in this was found with the Boston National League franchise, which changed its name from “Braves” to “Bees” from 1935-40. If Marshall had been awarded the franchise three years later, or if he had kept the football team at Braves Field for an additional three years, it’s possible he would’ve changed the nickname to something similar to winged insects with stingers.

But alas…

Controversy surrounding the nickname began in the late 1940s, as the National Congress of American Indians began a campaign to eliminate all offensive team nicknames, including “Redskins” and “Braves,” which were determined to be demeaning to Native American heritage. Following the American Indian Movement’s efforts to raise awareness of Native American civil rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a handful of high school and collegiate nicknames have been changed. No professional team has yet to be changed, with both afore-mentioned nicknames being top priority.

In 1992, the biggest challenge to the Redskins’ nickname was made as a legal challenge was made to overturn the NFL’s and the team’s trademark involving the “Redskin” name. Citing trademark law declaring no trademark could be “disparaging, scandalous contemptuous, or disreputable,” the U.S. Patent and trademark Office cancelled the trademark of the nickname in 1999. However, an appeal to the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. overturned the cancellation on the grounds there was lack of sufficient proof the nickname had actually disparaged Native Americans.

Controversy over the nickname remained quiet until March, 2013, when legislation was entered into the U.S. House of Representatives amending patent laws so that disparaging nicknames would be prevented from getting or keeping trademarks.  The bill remains stalled and is unlikely to be passed into law.

The word “redskin” is a slur, according to a consensus of dictionaries. Originating during the colonization of North America by European settlers, the word was used to generalize and stereotype all Native Americans, disregarding any unique identity of tribal or national affiliation. It was used especially during times of westward expansion, when Native Americans were not only seen as inferior to white citizens, but a threat to the point the genocide which ensued was embarked upon.

It is also ironically notable that in Snyder’s letter, the term “redskin” is only used in reference to the franchise. He claims that “Native Americans,” “Indians,” and names various tribes who aren’t offended by the term, but doesn’t use the term in reference to the peoples concerned at all. This begs the obvious point that if the word doesn’t offend, it would be safe to use in real context.

While proponents of the nickname claim the term doesn’t result in actual offensiveness in today’s society, even possibly honors Native Americans, there is no real argument that justifies keeping it. In fact, if they are to honor it, the best way to do so is to put it in the past as soon as possible, and not to make the slur ineffective and inert.

When first used by the NFL franchise, American society was a lot different. Racial segregation was accepted between blacks and whites, and the slurs used against African-Americans were also just as acceptable as “redskin” was. Changing the nickname will not only reflect the progress American Society has made concerning civil rights, but also putting the nickname will add to the history that racism did exist, but efforts were made to end it.

Second, the nickname also hides a mixed past of the franchise itself concerning the franchise itself. While known for actually breaking a major racial barrier by having the first African-American starting QB in 1988, the Redskins franchise was also last NFL team to sign and play African-Americans under Marshall’s tenure as owner. By 1955, every other NFL franchise had an integrated roster except for Washington. A well-known racist himself, Marshall only agreed to integrate after direct pressure from then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, who declared if the Redskins would be allowed to play in then-new RFK Stadium, they would have to end racial discriminatory hiring practices since the stadium was on federally-controlled land.

In 1962, the drafted Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, but when it was learned that Davis had leukemia, Marshall traded for African-American Bobby Mitchell, then a star receiver with the then-perennial contending Cleveland Browns, who remained with the Redskins for the remainder of his career.

Today, the franchise is proportionally integrated with the rest of the NFL, but by merely playing for the Redskins, they honor the tradition of the owner – Marshall – that resisted that very integration that led to them earning NFL salaries in the first place.

In light of the team’s distancing itself from its own, the NFL’s, sports’ in general, and American Society’s overall progress in racial equality, it is time to leave this nickname behind. The sooner the better, as this controversy won’t go away.

Contributor: John Stebbins

John Stebbins is a Cleveland-area native who received a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1998 from Bowling Green State University. After a couple years reporting in the print industry, he took some time off before occasionally contributing to various websites.

See his full bio!

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