Instead, I saw my home team — with a new name, a new look and a refreshingly spirited new game. Stripped of the offensive 19th-century Native American stereotypes, the 21st-century Washington Football Team looked like a team I might be able to root for.
During the game, I saw social justice signage on the helmets and pads of the NFL players. “Stop hate” and “End racism,” some of them read — a stark contrast to the imagery that used to be on Washington’s helmets.
Notably, none of the signage read “Stop domestic violence” and “End sexual harassment,” a reminder by omission that the team still has a way to go before earning unabashed cheers.
Still, dropping the most repulsive name in the NFL last year was huge. And look what’s happened since.
As Washington Post sports columnist Jerry Brewer wrote after the 17-15 win over Las Vegas: “For the second straight year, Coach Ron Rivera’s club has cobbled together a four-game winning streak, defying another feeble start to the season, persisting in ways that past versions of the franchise couldn’t, embracing another gift-wrapped, lowball playoff opportunity.”
Not the most glowing review, but not bad. And at any rate already better than some of those past versions of the franchise.
Washington and San Francisco are 6-6 and hold the sixth and seventh playoff spots in the NFC. Philadelphia (6-7) is a half-game behind Washington, and the two teams play each other twice over the next four weeks, Brewer pointed out. “Atlanta, Carolina, Minnesota and New Orleans are 5-7. It’s going to be an epic race of mediocrity,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, it should be a fun one.”
Do you know what else is fun? That hearing that fight song — the one where the original lyrics had to be changed from “fight for Ole Dixie” to “fight for old D.C.” to disguise the franchise’s racist history — and seeing cheerleaders dressed as “sexy squaws” are no longer game-day rituals.
Unfortunately, other sports franchises still have not seen the light. Some continue to be hooked on Indian sounds and gestures learned from 1960s era TV shows like “Wagon Train” and “Rawhide.” What they may not realize, or choose to ignore, is that they can’t claim, as many often have, that they are honoring Indians.
Perhaps they will consider the findings of a study published in Quaternary Science Reviews in March 2019. Researchers estimate that the European arrival in the Americas in 1492 led to the deaths of more than 55 million Indigenous people through violence and disease by 1600.
It was genocide on an unimaginable scale. So how does perpetuating racist imagery through sports paraphernalia honor native peoples?
It took decades of protests and lawsuits before the Washington Football Team got the message.
In 2015, a federal judge ruled that the team’s name was disparaging. But Washington resisted for another five years before finally doing the right thing.
Now with its temporary name — Washington Football Team seems to be perfect for a no-frills, high-spirited team — it’s an organization with a lightness of being that shocks fans and foes alike. And sometimes even themselves.
The team renamed two main roads at facilities that contained the offensive name. In Ashburn, the road leading to the team’s headquarters is now Coach Gibbs Drive, after former coach Joe Gibbs. In Landover, the main road into FedEx Field was changed to Sean Taylor Road, named for the team’s revered safety who was killed in 2007.
Losing that name and the mascot also made room for a new tradition. After Sunday’s victory, Rivera handed defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio a rock, which he threw at a wall in the visiting locker room in celebration of beating a Raiders team he used to coach. After the victory over Seattle a few days earlier, he had given a rock to quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who threw it against the wall in the locker room at FedEx Field.
It symbolized young David’s defeat of the giant Goliath, according to Rivera.
“I told you guys,” Rivera reportedly said, “everything we need is in this room.”
No insulting mascots. No offensive fight song. Just players and coaches, with rocks and a new spirit out to have some fun.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.