Now is the time to rename Washington’s NFL team
This racist reminder of America’s historic atrocities needs to be removed
Under the withering heat of protest, symbols of tyranny and injustice appear to be crumbling. Yet the Washington football team’s racist nickname has been given a pass. If there is one symbol that needs to be eliminated, this is it.
Even as the National Football League publicly embraces Black Lives Matter and corporate partners proudly announce a Juneteenth holiday for employees, team owner Daniel Snyder’s symbol of contempt remains.
The reasons are many, but it comes down to the confluence of Snyder’s money, his personal and business relationships and a protest hierarchy, which currently has African Americans, not Native Americans, as the flavor of the moment.
NASCAR announced that it would prohibit the display of the Confederate flag during races. Some military leaders say they are open to renaming military installations that memorialize Confederate generals. The Mississippi Legislature voted Sunday to replace its state flag. And Wednesday, according to a report by Adweek, investment firms and shareholders have asked Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo to terminate their business relationships with the team unless it agrees to change its name.
But our suffering is connected: The plantation and the reservation are manifestations of systemic mistreatment that continues to this day. Neither should be memorialized with a nickname.
Yet the Washington football team continues to trot out a bloody, racist nickname unchallenged by powerful corporate partners.
If the league’s broadcast partners truly believe that Black lives matter — and that means red lives, brown lives, Asian lives, too — they should summon the moral courage to announce that henceforth their networks and their announcers will no longer use the team’s offensive nickname.
Networks argue that since this is the team nickname, they are obligated to report the news. Nonsense. Don’t let Snyder’s lack of morality influence yours.
“It’s not hard to change the name,” Tony Dungy, the Super Bowl-winning head coach and broadcaster told me recently. Dungy, like a number of other broadcasters and journalists, made the individual decision a few seasons ago to stop using the team name during broadcasts. “When I’m on the air, I try to just refer to them as Washington. I think it’s appropriate. If the team doesn’t want to change, the least I can do is try not to use it.”
Dungy added: “You can say, ‘This has been a historic name and we’ve used it for this team for X number of years, but in this day and age, it’s offensive to some people, so we’re going to change it.’ I don’t think that’s hard.”
But it has been hard.
A change of hearts and minds
I have seen many colleagues and friends struggle with the nickname issue.
They grew up loving the Washington team, racist nickname and all. Some own season tickets, some have a relationship with Snyder. Even as they embrace Black Lives Matter and rail against police brutality and injustice, these friends and colleagues say the name.
Dungy used to be like many otherwise conscientious people who used the offensive nickname and never thought anything of it. “When I got into broadcasting, the debate got bigger and bigger. I heard both sides. Finally, I just thought, ‘We have to come into an educated time.’ ”
There are a number of versions of how the name came into existence.
In his book Redskins: Insult and Brand, C. Richard King cites a study by linguist Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institution which argues that the word was a term Indians used to describe themselves. The Washington team cites the study in which Goddard points to what he claims to be the first public use of the term in 1815 by Meskwaki chief Black Thunder.
Speaking to Native American and Euro-Americans, he said: “I turn to all, red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me.”
King writes: “Translators adopted the term as a convention and journalists soon followed suit.”
King offers more convincing proof that the name is at least partially rooted in blood — in bounties placed on delivering scalps of Indians in the 18th and 19th centuries as they were brutally being removed from their land.
“Redskins” referred to the bloody scalps of Indian people killed by bounty hunters who were paid for each one they delivered. He cites a 1755 document called the Phips Proclamation which, at the behest of King George II, called for the “pursuing, captivating, killing and destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.” According to King, the bounties were 50 pounds for adult male scalps, 25 for adult female scalps and 20 for scalps of boys and girls under age 12.
Choose whichever version you wish, but in the last two months alone we’ve learned enough about our nation’s brutal history of conquest and expansion to convince anyone with an ounce of compassion to stop using the nickname.
As King writes: “Although the particulars vary from speaker to speaker, many American Indians know the key elements of this narrative: indigenous people were targeted, hunted and killed; their bodies were prized and commodified; the process fragmented them, reducing them to a single fetish — the scalp — and these acts were part of larger genocidal projects. R—— was the keyword of this process and condenses the symbolic, cultural and physical violence embodied by the term for many Native Americans today.”
We are such an ahistoric nation — and with good reason. Our history — our real history — frightens us and shatters the myth of our foundation. Our history skips over the details. It tells us that the government took land away from Indians, but skips the gruesome details. This is why statues are toppling and Confederate flags are being removed.
The sight of George Floyd being executed in cold blood by a Minnesota police officer was sickening. Think about the scalps of Indians being turned in for a bounty. Imagine seeing video of that on social media.
Never say never
In a May 2013 interview with USA Today, Snyder insisted: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
At the time, I compared Snyder’s intransigence to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s defiance of federal integration orders 50 years earlier, when he vowed: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
That same year, President Barack Obama said in an interview with the Associated Press that “if I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
That seems like a lifetime ago.
Snyder’s defiance aligns him with the current climate of circling the wagons to protect symbols of white supremacy and conquest. Snyder may not be a white supremacist, but he and the team logo seem to be in the foxhole with them.
So, where does that leave us?
The initiative of individual journalists and broadcasters who no longer use the Washington team nickname is to be admired. But collective action moves mountains.
We need the NFL’s corporate partners to give voice and muscle to the movement to remove a damaging symbol.
Forget the platitudes, the holidays and the gestures. What matters are deeds, not words. Remember the bounties, remember the bloody redskins.
Don’t say the name.