Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 27, 2014

What’s In A Name? Sometimes A Lot

So we come to Thanksgiving, a holiday rooted in the kindness Wampanoag sachem Massasoit showed to the tiny band of Pilgrims who had sailed into Plymouth Harbor nearly 400 years ago. Today for many sports fans Thanksgiving is about squeezing in a moment to reflect on life’s bounties during halftime of one of the three NFL contests that play out on flat screens from coast to coast from noon into the night, starting right after Santa arrives safely in Herald Square for another year. That combination makes it the perfect day to turn one’s attention to the NFL’s Washington franchise.

Given the team’s woeful performance in recent years, public focus has instead been on the franchise’s name, Redskins, and its logo, the head of a Native American with trailing feathers seen in profile. There are scores of teams in all sports, from youth leagues up through high schools and colleges and on into the professional ranks that call themselves by a name that refers to North America’s earliest inhabitants. In the NFL Washington is joined by the Kansas City Chiefs. Baseball has the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians, and the list goes on. But as a result of decades-old debate, there are also scores of teams that have changed their name. By way of full disclosure, while a freshman at Dartmouth more than 40 years ago I was heavily involved, as chair of the Native American student organization, in discussions that eventually resulted in the college changing its athletic teams’ nickname from Indians to Big Green.

Despite the multitude of similarly named teams, much of the recent public debate on this issue has centered on Washington’s football team, largely because of its location in our nation’s capital. Originally named the Boston Braves, owner George Preston Marshall changed his NFL franchise’s name to Redskins when the team moved from Braves Field, which it shared with a National League baseball franchise of the same name, to Fenway Park in 1933. The name traveled with the team when Marshall relocated it to Washington four years later. As nicknames go, Redskins is among the more offensive references to Native Americans; while Washington’s logo, compared to some, is fairly benign. It is, for example, decidedly less objectionable than the grinning cartoon caricature that Cleveland’s baseball team chooses to display on its caps.

Yet the degree of offensiveness is really beside the point. Supporters of the team’s name, led by owner Dan Snyder, insist that their intent is entirely positive; that the name is meant to invoke qualities of strength and courage. They also point to various surveys showing support for the name among the team’s fans, and even among some groups of Native Americans. Advocates are also quick to cite examples of a handful of reservation high schools with football teams bearing the name Redskins or Indians.

What the first argument ignores is that the noble Native American is every bit as much a stereotype as the drunken Indian; and stereotypes, be they positive or negative, are inherently inaccurate and dehumanizing. The insistence that the name is meant to be entirely positive also turns a blind eye to history. Within 50 years of the first Thanksgiving, New England was home to King Philip’s War, the bloodiest conflict in American history in terms of lives lost proportional to the population. Massasoit’s early kindness was eventually repaid across the land with smallpox infected blankets, forced relocations of entire tribes, and the subjugation of an entire racial and ethnic group for decades. To this day some of the poorest communities in this country are on federal reservations.

A reliance on public opinion fails to recognize the moral nature of the grievance felt by those offended by the team’s name. Doing what is right often requires courage that does not find its source in the most recent plebiscite. The fact that most of the team’s fans or even numbers of Native Americans aren’t offended by the use of Redskins neither dilutes nor delegitimizes the pain felt by those who are. The use of similar names within a Native American community is akin to urban African-American youth referring to each other by the n-word. It is an exercise of a privilege that members of the community may feel they alone have; though it is also ultimately sad and self-denigrating.

All across the land, there are sports teams named for animals, birds, and fish; from Bears to Cardinals to Marlins. There are teams named for professions, from meatpackers in Green Bay to priests in San Diego. But aside from all of the Native American themed names, there is no long list of teams named for any other ethnic or racial category of people. Generations of children read The Story of Little Black Sambo, until times and sensitivities changed. Today no owner would consider for a moment naming his team the Sambos, in order to honor the courage and cleverness of people of color all around the world. But Redskins? It’s all about noble qualities and respect, Dan Snyder assures us.

Or is it really about money? With a few clicks of a mouse on the Washington team’s website, one can purchase a baby’s bib, inevitably to be covered in puke, emblazoned with the team’s logo. Another click or two and one can add to their shopping cart a woman’s lace thong with that noble Native American visage in the triangle of the crotch. Two curious ways to display one’s respect.

The one thing that is certain is that the name of Washington’s NFL team isn’t going to change. The owner has made that abundantly clear, and the tight little fraternity of billionaires who along with Snyder own the rest of the NFL franchises aren’t about to bring pressure on him to change his mind.

This brings us to the other reason Native Americans should object to the name. With another defeat last weekend Washington fell to 3-8 in yet one more lost season. First year coach Jay Gruden, who last week took quarterback Robert Griffin III to task for his poor play, this week announced he was benching Griffin in favor of Colt McCoy. Under Snyder’s ownership the team is 109-148, with just four playoff appearances. Washington finished last in the NFC East seven of the last ten years, and is currently tied with New York for irrelevancy in the standings. Over the years Snyder has hired and fired his head coach on average every other year. For much of Snyder’s tenure Washington won the Super Bowl every spring with the announcement of a big free agent signing, only to discover when play began that the one-time star was well into the downside of his career. Snyder has also sued a newspaper reporter for libel because he didn’t like an article, as well as season ticket holders who couldn’t afford to pay record high prices in the midst of the recession.

Before the 2012 season Snyder’s team mortgaged its future, trading a raft of future draft picks for the chance to select Griffin. For one season the quarterback was the toast of DC, running and passing his team into the playoffs and dazzling both fans and the media. But the season ended in injury and Griffin hasn’t been remotely the same player since. As he has underperformed while acting increasingly entitled, those same fans and pundits have turned on him with a vengeance. Now, in yet the latest example of the team’s extreme and constant dysfunction, the brief RG3 era may have come to an end.

Who would want this team named after them? The name needs to be changed alright, to the Washington Snyders. Put Dan’s picture on that bib and that lace thong. Let’s see how he likes that kind of respect.  Maybe he can sue himself.

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