Monday, February 1, 2016
February 1, 2016: Football Debates: The Redskins
[For each of the last few years, I’ve used Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some football and/or sports topics. This week, I’ll focus on five football debates I haven’t already covered in those series, leading up to a special post on a few Super Bowl L storylines!]
On what’s not complicated, and what is, about name and mascot debates.
I grew up a die-hard Washington Redskins fan (that 35-point 2nd Quarter in the 1987 Super Bowl remains one of my favorite sports memories of all time, and not just because we were watching with a family friend who had already started gloating about his Broncos), and my lifelong best friend Steve remains such a fan (Dan Snyder has long since pushed me away). So I’d be the first admit that the defenses of the team’s name aren’t hard to understand: when you’re a fan of a team, particularly the kind of die-hard fan whose identity has been caught up with that team for years and years (if not decades and decades), the thought of changing any fundamental aspect of that team’s identity is a pretty unnerving one. It’s not an exact analogy by any means, but all those fans who swore off the Brooklyn Dodgers when they moved West to Los Angeles were participating in a similar kind of angry reaction to change, and demonstrating the power of fan passion even when (as in the Redskins case) it’s entirely divorced from the rest of reality.
Because let’s face it, the overwhelming arguments for changing the team’s name aren’t the slightest bit complicated either. I don’t care how many faux-Native Americans Snyder trots out to support his cause, the simple truth is that the word “Redskins” is a longstanding, historical, undebated racial slur, a derogatory term for a community of fellow Americans. That’d be more than enough to merit a change on its own terms (as many commentators have argued, we would never permit a team to be known as the “Spics” or “Chinks” here in 21st century America), but the team’s history adds another layer of racism into the mix: the founding owner George Preston Marshall was himself an inveterate racist, and almost certainly chose the name as part of that worldview and perspective. However tough it might be for die-hard Redskins fans to get used to a new name, those emotions and responses can’t possibly measure up to how destructive it is (not just for Native Americans, but for all of us) to have a professional sports franchise bear such a hateful name and history.
Far more complicated, at least from my admittedly removed vantage point, is the question of all the other franchises that bear less overtly racist or negative Native American names. In the NFL alone we’ve got the Kansas City Chiefs; in baseball we’ve got the Cleveland Indians (and their most definitely overtly racist logo/mascot, which needs to be changed just as quickly as does the Redskins name) and the Atlanta Braves (my other childhood and lifelong favorite team; hmm, I think I’ve got something else to bring to my AmericanStudiesTherapist); in hockey the Chicago Blackhawks; and then there are all those college and high school teams. I’m not in any way suggesting that changing the Redskins name would have to be a slippery slope to debating all these other names as well—different situations can and should produce different responses, and in any case the possibility of distinct future debates is in no way an argument in a present one. But at the same time, it seems clear to me that our national tendency to name teams after Native Americans reflects, at the very least, our collective narratives of those cultures and communities as a vanished part of our past, rather than a very much alive and vital part of our present and future. So it’s probably long past time we considered what all these names have to tell us, and where we go from there.
Next debate tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?