In American culture, there is no marriage of art and commerce as spectacular and ritualistically prominent as Super Bowl commercials. A couple days before the eventual blowout by the Seahawks kicked off, the following video appeared on my Facebook newsfeed, declaring itself “the #BigGame commercial the NFL would never air”:
What follows is my attempt to sort through the contentious question that this advertisement appears to answer in the affirmative: Should the Washington Redskins change their name?
To be clear, I cannot help but approach this question in a personal manner, which one might say causes a bit of an identity crisis for me. On the one hand, I am a lifelong native of Washington, DC and I quite enjoy watching football. Before coming to college, “Sunday” and “Redskins” were essentially synonymous terms in my life.
On the other hand, I am a first-generation American born to a mother from Chile and a father from Peru. My heritage is mixed and for the most part remains a mystery to me, but no doubt the major strand of my ancestry is unfortunately described by my favorite football team’s name. Plop me in the United States not even a century ago, and I would be little more than a redskin myself.
Leaving this bit of introspection aside for a moment, let’s return to the video that provoked it in the first place. The video was created by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which describes itself as “the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities.” The video is part of a larger movement to “Change the Mascot” and appears at least in part as a visual manifestation of a thoroughly researched report published by NCAI in October, titled “Ending the Legacy of Racism in Sports and the Era of Harmful ‘Indian’ Sports Mascots.”
At its core, NCAI’s video strikingly demonstrates the complex nature of the naming process. Names help us classify the innumerable elements of our environment according to common traits. To name a thing is to essentialize it, to impose a set of boundaries that dictate what the thing in question can or cannot do. NCAI’s video demonstrates the beauty that springs from our language’s failure to come up with a name that fully encapsulates the American continent’s native communities and their descendants. Sadly, the one name that goes unuttered at the end of the video comes quite close.
So when it comes to “redskin,” what’s in a name? What is the essence of a redskin? Answer: the deepest hatred harbored against the first communities to live on and with the land that our nation today calls its own. The word “redskin” is nearly as old as the first contact between English-speaking Europeans and the American continent. Etymologically speaking, the Washington football team’s name memorializes a shameful history of vilification and genocide for which this country has never claimed real responsibility. The term originated during a time when lieutenants of the English and French crowns would award bounties to colonists who brought back the scalps of dead Indians as proof of their extermination. Think for a moment if we had won in Vietnam and eventually let the NFL establish a team in Saigon called the Gook-Ears.
No, really. Think about it.
In the case of a Washington Redskin, the story behind the name is arguably just as ugly. With the advent of motion pictures and “talkies” in the 1920s and 30’s, America’s cultural mainstream renewed its interest in the one-dimensional image of Native American people as vanishing savages. From 1930 to 1950, about a third of all films produced in the United States were Westerns wherein, more often than not, the “Injun” got what he deserved at the hands of a John Wayne type. Taking notice, George Preston Marshall decided in 1932 that he would rename his newly acquired football franchise. Hence the Boston Braves became the Boston Redskins and after relocating in 1937, our cherished Washington Redskins. To get an idea of the fear that Marshall hoped his newly christened team would strike into the hearts of its opponents, check out this old school Tom and Jerry cartoon, also made in 1932. Before ever turning against each other, these two once shared a common enemy: the redskin.
Throughout his life and career, Marshall was a shameless white supremacist. A year after changing the Redskins’ name, Marshall spearheaded an initiative to formally segregate the National Football League in 1933, a policy which lasted until 1946. For almost twenty years after that Marshall kept a lily-white depth chart, refusing to sign a single black player until the Kennedy administration’s threat to evict his franchise from the nation’s capital forced him to do so in 1962. Not un-coincidentally, the Redskins failed to make a single postseason appearance during this period.
This is the legacy—the so-called “great tradition”—that my favorite football team enshrines in its name. I’ve always found burgundy and gold to be beautiful colors, but as long as they remain the colors of a Washington Redskin they will forever be stained by memories of blood and bigotry.
The more pressing question at hand is therefore not should, but rather will the Washington Redskins ever change their name? Those familiar with this ongoing story will probably remember current owner Dan Snyder’s reply to a USA Today reporter back in May: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”
Mr. Snyder is a nostalgia tycoon. He chaired the board of Six Flags Amusement Parks for five years (before the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010) and owned Johnny Rockets—a popular chain of 1950’s-themed diners—until just a few months ago (he sold the company in June). As owner of the Washington Redskins, Snyder is now living a lifelong fan’s ultimate dream. He grew up rooting for the Redskins, and now he gets to run them. From his perspective, I guess, it just wouldn’t be the same under any other name.
The most effective efforts to get the team’s name changed will therefore not aim at Snyder’s conscience, but rather the fans themselves, who provide Snyder with his profits and his public. Washingtonians will have to take it upon themselves to illustrate the shame that our team’s name brings upon our city, the nation’s capital.
To that end, I have a suggestion for the folks at Change the Mascot: Please change your logo.
In preparing to write this article, I decided to “like” Change the Mascot on Facebook. After searching for the organization, I was greeted with this image:
It gave me serious pause to go ahead with my intent to show support for what I think is an extremely worthy cause. I really had to think about whether I was fully prepared to associate this logo with my Facebook profile. What will my friends back home think if this comes across their newsfeeds? I don’t want to seem like I’m betraying the team. I love the Redskins, I always have. I just really wish they would change their name…
After about twenty seconds of internal deliberation, I went ahead and “liked” the page. No one has said anything to me about it, and I doubt anyone will. But to be perfectly honest, I still feel strange when I scroll down my own profile and soon find this image staring back at me.
While I am sure there are arguments to the contrary, I do not find anything objectively objectionable about the Redskins’ logo. This isn’t the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo we’re talking about. It is the proud profile of a historically significant people, akin to Minnesota’s Viking and New England’s Patriot. Consensus is certainly hard to come by in Washington, but support for our football team is something that most folks here can actually agree upon. I think it’s possible to change the name while keeping some of our traditional imagery. By crossing out our logo, the activists behind Change the Mascot effectively alienate some of their most crucial potential allies in Washington.
There must be a way forward that honors the legitimate histories and identities at play here, those of the District in addition to those of our continent’s native communities. Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, offers a name that NCAI’s video fails to mention, but which I think satisfies all the necessary parameters.
“Call them the Washington Americans.”