By Ian Washburn
On Dec. 7, 1941, my grandparents were two of the 27,000 patrons in the stands at Griffith Stadium cheering Sammy Baugh and their beloved burgundy and gold to victory over the rival Philadelphia Eagles. My grandparents, Roger and Nancy Washburn, and the other fans sat in nervous speculation as pages for military personnel rained from the ballpark’s public address system.
Three generations later, eight decades of proud season-ticket ownership through three stadiums and 180 games attended since 1982, I find myself at an undeniable crossroads in my relationship with this franchise and all it has stood for in my life.
My discomfort has nothing to do with the football played on the field of late. Winning the NFC East and having an experienced front-office staff has made me as happy as I was the day Joe Gibbs returned in 2004. Everything is looking up on the football front. My discomfort has everything to do with no longer feeling comfortable using the name of my favorite football team, or wearing my burgundy and gold hat with the team logo on the front. Knowing that we, as fans, are alienating America’s First Nations people doesn’t make me feel good about my Washington football fandom. Team owner Daniel Snyder’s refusal to meet with offended Native American leaders and their allies in recent years has further alienated this legacy season-ticket holder.
I have not come to this position lightly. I vividly remember watching in shock as CBS showed a group of Native American protesters outside of the Metrodome before Super Bowl 26 in 1992. That same year, I cursed a group of protesters outside of RFK Stadium as we worked our way to the turnstiles for an epic December match-up against the Super Bowl contending Dallas Cowboys. My teenage mind could not yet grasp why anybody wouldn’t like our team’s name and what it stood for. I remember thinking that Native Americans should feel honored by us, after we had won three Super Bowl titles over the past decade. My earliest memories in life are watching our team from our seats in section 507, with my parents and grandparents in attendance. I jumped for joy after Riggo’s run in Pasadena, and I cried buckets of tears when my mother tucked me in to bed after Super Bowl 18. I hummed along as the organist played Hail to the Redskins at Roger Washburn’s funeral service in 1987. I scrambled from RFK with a souvenir seat at the final game in 1996.
But in this decade I’ve grown up, and I’ve learned. I’ve met with several Native Americans who have told me how the names and imagery of native themed sports teams makes them feel. I read of an extensive study that concluded that native themed mascots foster hostile learning environments for all children, particularly native students. The examples of cultural conflicts presented with native themed mascots are too numerous to list and too real for me to ignore. I know that I am not alone. There are many sports fans who no longer wish to mediate the conflict of rooting for their favorite team while knowing the pain they are inflicting on our Native American brothers and sisters. I have met these fans in Cleveland and Chicago and through social media and via Atlanta and Kansas City. The numbers of sports fans like us are growing.
Evolving over time to confront the problem hasn’t come without some pain. Fellow fans and even family members have ostracized and verbally abused me for not falling in line to defend my once-beloved name and logo of our football team. The truth is, it would be much easier to do what I did for so many years, to look the other way and dismiss the problem as not mine.
I simply cannot deny the countless Native Americans and political and religious leaders asking for the name to change. Thousands of North American schools and sports organizations have rebranded away from native themes since 1970. Several U.S. high schools who’ve employed the Washington football team’s nickname for decades have rebranded in this decade, while several more are planning to follow suit. The Washington NFL team should no longer be an exception. We don’t need to be the last holdout in a perverse pride war over a civil rights issue. Need
My family elders and fellow fans may not agree with my stance, but I can no longer turn a blind eye. The Washington NFL team has given us all great memories — and our future experiences shouldn’t be tarnished.
The writer is a lifelong fan of Washington football.