An inclusive solution for D.C.’s NFL team name

October 7, 2013

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post – Native Americans protest the Washington football franchise’s name in front of Lambeau Field before the Packers and Redskins played on Sept. 15.

Five years ago, there was a shouting match in my household about the football team we all rooted for. My kid brother had a birthday coming up and I wanted to buy him some  burgundy and gold gear. I was promptly instructed by my dad that any such purchase would be returned to the store.

There was a heated argument. I couldn’t get it through my head that the name of the team that my dad had molded me to love was suddenly something to be ashamed of. His point was simple: we don’t propagate racist imagery in this household. It was a position he’d come to with age.

Monday, at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, several people stood up to say a similar thing. At a symposium organized by the Oneida Nation, held on the same day that NFL owners began gathering for a fall league meeting in Washington, Native American leaders, elected officials and experts gathered to discuss the true impact ‘Redskins’ the name of D.C.’s beloved team has on American society.

As a D.C. native and a lifelong fan of the team, I’ve lost friends over the issue. Supporters of the team name often tell you that  tradition trumps a history of genocide.  After all, the argument goes, we’re already desensitized to the name, why change now?  Those people are idiots. The fact is that not only is the team’s mascot a highly insensitive insult, but the ardent defiance of those in support of it is disgusting. 

This isn’t just a matter of football. Or uniforms. Or logos. Or fight songs. Or really anything related to game day. It’s also not a matter of singling out Dan Snyder’s team among a slew of others with similar monikers. It’s a matter of acknowledging that as a country, we are not going to accept the continued parodying of cultures for the entertainment of the masses and the profits of a few It’s something that Ray Halbritter, Nation Representative of the Oneida Indian Nation explained pretty simply on Monday.

“The name of the Washington team is a dictionary defined offensive racial epithet. Those other names aren’t,” he said.

But it’s not that simple, said Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. He points out that all of the imagery of the other teams is offensive, but the franchise that plays at FedEx Field happens to be particularly over the top.

“It’s hard to acknowledge. Especially if you’re a fan of the team, or someone that uses the word carelessly or casually, to admit that that’s something you really shouldn’t have done. And rather than correct their conduct, they choose instead to say, ‘oh, I don’t mean anything by it.’ Or ‘it’s a harmless word,’” Gover said. “Human beings are endlessly creative in finding ways to be mean to each other. But one of the things we use fairly regularly is language.”

I used to think that to do the matter correct justice, the team should move entirely away from everything it’s ever been. Ditch the name, the logo, the colors, everything. Start fresh, anew with something that does not in any way remind anyone of the legacy of a racist name.

But I realize now that abandoning the team’s theme altogether toes a tricky line: it runs the risk of erasing from our collective memory the history and plight of millions of Native Americans. Gover is the one who changed my mind, and his solution to the problem is brilliant.

Call them the Washington Americans. He noted that in fact, this is a naming trend that goes back far further than the NFL. But because of how we’ve skewed what that word has come to mean in society today, people often forget.

“Well, you’ve got the Nationals, what about the Americans? You know in the 17th and 18th centuries when a European writer referred to Americans, they were not talking about the colonialists. They were talking about the Native Americans. And that’s how they were referred to. Even scientific literature at the time comparing the different races said well, you’ve got Africans, you got Asians, you got Europeans and you’ve got Americans,” Gover said. “It’s a much more inclusive term. So if you had a Native American image, but the team was called the Americans, that’s starts to feel like something more like an honor. You’re not being singled out, you’re being included.”

Indeed, there are very real effects to the prolonged cartooning of a particular group. The problem with racial discrimination is that the burden of proof is on the victim to indicate its negative effects. Which creates an inherent disadvantage because those typically fighting for their cause are already behind.

Frankly, what the team needs now is what I needed five years ago: I changed after I was confronted with an authority figure who instructed me I was in the wrong.

 Beyond the matter of right and wrong, it is a matter of public health. It’s easy to overlook that when the only health you care about related to the gridiron is that of the guys playing on the field, even if only marginally.

Dr. Michael Friedman made this clear Monday. “The prejudice and discrimination and the history of that against Native American people is at an extremely high level. There are unbelievable disparities in terms of housing, in terms of education, in terms of access to health care,” the clinical psychologist said. “The way to understand the use of this racial slur, is to understand that in the context of the bigger picture of prejudice and discrimination. This is government defined harassment if we’re talking about adults, bullying if we’re talking about kids.”

I stopped buying team gear a couple years back. It was a personal decision, in a small way, to not support an owner who so callously thumbed his face at the history of the country that allowed him to make his fortune, all for the sake of a name. I also made a conscious decision to try as hard as I could to not use that word. Not for political correctness or vanity’s sake, but because I wanted to stop.

I know it’s wrong, and it’s as simple as that.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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