Upon his hiring as the 30th coach of Washington’s NFL franchise two years ago, Ron Rivera said that he hadn’t a problem with the team’s racist name, which his boss, Daniel Snyder, had declared he would never change. Rivera even commissioned a piece of art for his new digs — a copy of a portrait painted by the team’s director of player development, featuring the logo of the team Rivera had just inherited. It showed the profile of a bronze-skinned Native American man of someone’s creation, a logo that debuted on the team’s helmets 50 years ago, just as a delegation of Native Americans met with then-franchise president Edward Bennett Williams to request he change the team’s name from what they explained was a “derogatory racial epithet.”
But in the summer of 2020, with the country roiling in protests against White supremacy in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and the sponsor of the team’s stadium, FedEx, calling on the club to drop the offensive name, Rivera expressed enlightenment. Not only was it time to change the name, Rivera said, but a new one paying homage to the military would be most appropriate.
The military? It made perfect sense to me. But not because Rivera was the son of a 32-year Army man and grew up on military bases overseas and in this area before settling in Monterey, Calif. Nor because the home of this football team is the seat of this country’s armed forces, with the Pentagon just across the river in Virginia.
Instead, it was because the military, its patriotic pomp and circumstance, is so unassailable in so many people’s eyes that it could be seen as the ultimate deodorizer for a franchise that has been rolling on one scent after another in recent years to mask its growing stench.
Charged with being disrespectful to Native Americans? Fly in some Native Americans, dress them in team jackets with the offensive logo and parade them during a game to thank them for being veterans.
Charged with treating women in the organization like appetizers at a bacchanal? Hire as part of your broadcast team the first woman to hold such a position in league history and name her a team executive.
“The NFL more than any other league has tied branding to the U.S. military,” Samantha King, a cultural studies scholar at Queen’s University in Ontario, told me by phone last week. “It’s completely predictable.”
For three weeks in November, the NFL plays army, with coaches outfitted in camo gear and players adorning themselves in camo accoutrements for what the league calls “Salute to Service.” (It does raise tens of millions for veteran support organizations such as Wounded Warriors.)
Then, of course, there is the presentation of colors — the flag of each branch of the military — before every game and maybe a military flyover after the national anthem, some of which were paid for with taxpayers’ money until the late Sen. John McCain and others caught wind of it.
And when Colin Kaepernick was first pointed out sitting during the anthem, who was enlisted to soften the theatrics of his protest by convincing him to kneel instead? Retired Green Beret Nate Boyer. The next thing you knew, the hashtag #VeteransforKaepernick went viral.
The cloak of the military in this country often is employed as a coverup for sins.
King, who in 2008 wrote a paper on the sports-military nexus — “Offensive Lines: Sport-State Synergy in an Era of Perpetual War” — pointed out that Washington’s new name choice is “completely out of touch, given the reckoning the league did with Black Lives Matter and the link to the militarized policing.”
Indeed, it’s no less incongruous than emblazoning end zones and helmets with slogans championing racial equity while the hiring of league coaches and executives is so unfair that recently fired Black head coach Brian Flores on Tuesday sued the league and its teams, alleging racial discrimination.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Washington franchise finally adopted a new name, after 87 years, only under economic threat. That echoed the team’s historically stubborn refusal to move forward with society. After all, it took an ultimatum from the federal government in the early 1960s for the team to integrate — the last club in the league to do so.
“You’re not even moving from racism to militarism,” King said. “They’re connected.”
She wasn’t referring to the federal 1033 program that allows police departments across the country to procure used U.S. military weaponry, which we witnessed turned against U.S. citizens protesting the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and at other demonstrations. She was talking of the history of the U.S. military annihilating the very people the Washington team long dishonored. The franchise reduced them to mere logos on a helmet and encouraged fans to mock them by painting their faces in a version of blackface and defiling their religious dress as game-day attire.
No, nothing is innocuous about Commanders. But there are innocuous names for sports teams. Such as the Nationals. The Mystics. The Spirit. D.C. United. These are neither offensive nor conjure any problematic images.
Women’s pro leagues have been particularly good at choosing anodyne monikers that fans eventually latch upon and embrace. So, too, has Major League Soccer, borrowing a tradition from European leagues.
Washington adopted that practice from soccer during its purgatory between being racially offensive and militaristic. “The Washington Football Team” was unique to the NFL. It was unifying, not divisive.
It should have stayed, which, I’m obligated to underscore now, is not a slight to the troops.