Overseas fans scroll to the end for context.
Last Thursday the Washington football team lost 45-14 to the NY football Giants. The game was nationally televised and, as has so often happened in the last 20 or so years, the Redskins failed to rise to the occasion. After another embarrassing beatdown by a hated rival I, a long suffering fan, am ready yet again to renounce my allegiance and walk away from the team and league. The dark psychological side of fandom however, challenges this desire. It's hard to escape the cult, to leave the abusive spouse.
My response is to work through an issue I have with the team. A therapeutic exercise if you will, like writing a letter you will never send to an ex-significant other or an absentee parent. Amid the latest couple of seasons of despair has arisen an old shadow on the legacy of the team: the name. "Redskins" may or may not in historical usage be a racial slur. The debate about it has, however, forced me to reflect and consider my own opinion. It's tough because I'm a fan—I'm divided.
First some context on where I am emotionally with respect to my relationship and the team for full transparency. There is a reason people say "NFL" stands for "No Fun League." The product of NFL Enterprises LLC© has become less and less watchable over the years as the focus has shifted from the players on the field to the sponsors, officials, talking heads in the booth, the stats, graphics, human interest stories, and dramatic vignettes. The NFL officiating crew of quinquagenarians and sexagenarians is overmatched, the expansive governing rules are byzantine, grotesque head and leg injuries have become ubiquitous and even expected. As a fan, if your team is winning it is easier to look past such disregard for the value of the product. If, like mine, your team is maddeningly, consistently, soul-crushingly inept, it is much harder to do so.
Washington's fault lies with the owner, Daniel Snyder, who is ultimately accountable for the performance of the team. Snyder bought the team in 1999. During his tenure (not including this season) the team's record has been 104-136, a 43% winning percentage. Empirically speaking, he is either a poor judge of talent (as are his coaches), a poor manager of talent, or both. The team and Mr. Snyder have failed not only to win; they have failed to repay my loyalty and that of their large fan base. They have not exchanged our consumer revenues for a quality product. If this were any other industry we would have switched vendors. The NFL, however, is a multi-billion-dollar, non-profit, tax-exempt monopoly operating in a decidedly un-free market, and "fandom" is not a true consumer activity.
The situation is made all the more ironic in that Mr. Snyder is a self-avowed, lifelong fan of the team as well and it is Mr. Snyder's fandom that brings us back to the question of the team's name. He has been defiant in his rejection of a team name change precisely because of his emotional connection to the team and its iconography since childhood. In an interview with USA Today he said, "We'll never change the name.. It's that simple. NEVER—you can use caps."
While there have been rumblings, protests, and actions for years against the use of "Redskins," this past year has seen the most heated debate and national attention to the issue. A consortium of Native American tribes put together a commercial in protest of the name that aired during the NBA finals. Members of Congress openly called for the team to change its name (and the President chimed in), threatening the league's anti-trust-exempt status. The US Patent and Trademark Office revoked the team's trademark for the name on the grounds that it is disparaging to Native Americans. The team, in a response that can only be interpreted as indicating the seriousness with which it took these various actions, went beyond legal defense to create a goodwill organization called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, which "utilizes the national platform of professional sports organizations and their partners to address the challenges in the daily lives of Native Americans based on what Tribal leaders tell us they need the most,” as the mission states.
Since November 2013, Snyder and his staff have traveled to 26 Tribal reservations across 20 states–not only to listen, but to learn first hand about the views, attitudes, and experiences of the tribes. During those visits, Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation officials met with 400 Tribal leaders.
In a personal letter sent March 24 to Redskins fans, Snyder said it became clear that members of the Native American community “need action, not words.”
“The fact is, too many Native American communities face much harsher, much more alarming realities,” Snyder said. “I’ve listened. I’ve learned. And frankly, it’s heart wrenching. It’s not enough to celebrate the values and heritage of Native Americans. We must do more."
(The irony that the name is not "Washington Redskins Redskins Foundation" has not gone unnoticed. Also, there is no website for the foundation that I have been able to locate.) A measure of the gravity of the issue is the fact that it was the subject of a South Park episode—indicating at least some measure of social currency.
I will not here rehearse the litany of arguments for and against the name. The bottom line is that the team and its sympathizers think the name is not a slur and represents something like honor, courage, and some other "virtues" that are assumed to be embodied by Native Americans (or at least some class of them). Opponents think the name is a slur, noting that no one ever calls a Native American a Redskin as a compliment, they don't use it to refer positively to each other, and it has a checkered past in public usage. This comes down to a claim by one group that a term used by another to refer to the first is offensive. It is compounded by the fact that the first group is a historically oppressed—indeed genocidically so—minority and the latter not only the dominant, historically privileged majority but a protected subset thereof.
This is not only a moral, emotional, and political issue, it is also an economic one. Despite losing a majority of their games during the course of Mr. Snyder's tenure the team remains one of the most valuable franchises in the league and one of the most valuable sports clubs in the world. The risk involved with any change to the team brand is high. It is not, however, unprecedented for established organizations to re-brand and to do so successfully. Snyder's stance on the team's name and the creation of a foundation indicate an emotionally charged, defensive, reactionary position from someone who knows there is something wrong with his opinion. If this is in fact true, I offer him now a positive, proactive solution that will not only resolve the name situation to the benefit of all involved but may offer a karmic redirection that improves the franchises prospects.
There are many teams with mascots that relate directly or indirectly to Native Americans. "Indians," "Chiefs," "Warriors," and "Braves" being the most notable (incidentally, Washington of the NFL isn't the only team with "Redskins" as its mascot). One well-known example is the Florida State Seminoles. While other teams were prohibited by the NCAA from using their traditional Native American mascot names and logos, Florida State was allowed to keep "Seminoles" as a name and their mascot, a face paint and costume wearing Chief Osceola who thrusts a flaming spear into the center logo on the field before each home game. The simple reason why Florida State is allowed to do this? They have the blessing of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Naturally the relationship between the Tribe and the University is multilayered and probably not 100% altruistic on either side. That said, the University's solution was to not have a generic Native American mascot or name to which some one or another of the multitude of Native American tribes could object. The name and mascot are specific to one tribe (with ties to the region) and the University got that tribe's permission to use it. This has the virtue of both adding meaning to the appropriation of the heritage and symbols by the University and immediately and completely eliminating dissent. Most likely the Tribe benefits financially through the relationship and has control of its image. You can see where I am going with this.
The Redskins should work with a tribe to change their name and mascot in a manner following the model set by Florida State. Preferably the tribe would be indigenous to the Washington, DC region but that isn't strictly speaking necessary. An obvious choice would be the Powhatan tribe and Chief Powhatan. The tribe has a seminal place in American history, Chief Powhatan is a complicated and interesting figure, his daughter Pocahontas would provide a paired icon who would appeal to female fans and even the traditional dress and adornment of the tribe is not radically different from the current team logo design. Add in a possible strategic partnership with Disney to leverage their Pocahontas franchise and draw in the kids as well as driving the massive fan base to replace existing merchandise (jerseys, hats, scarves, rugs, mugs, underwear, flags, etc.) and you have a marketing bonanza beyond the front office's wildest dreams.
If Powhatan, Nanticoke, Pamlico, Tuscarora, Tutelo or Catawba don't work Mr. Snyder and team can look elsewhere. Find one with a legacy and preferably a present that embody all of the virtues the team supposedly values and create a relationship that is mutually beneficial. This would put an end to the objections, renew the image of the team, and create a merchandising opportunity surpassing his wildest dreams. And maybe, just maybe, he could truly use the team as a platform for educating people about—a specific—Native American culture.
By the standard measure of success in football, wins, Snyder has been a below average leader. The team could use a karmic shift to get back to the winning ways they embodied before he bought the team. There is no evidence that such a shift will come through the management efforts he has employed the last 15 years. I suggest he change things up—beginning with the name.
"Football" in this post refers to the American style of the game, played by massive men in sides of 11 decked out in 14 kilos of gear ostensibly to protect them but which simply enables ever escalating violent behavior. The team based in Washington, DC is and has been embroiled in a controversy about its name, which may or may not be a racial slur for the indigenous peoples of America known now politically correctly as "Native Americans." Yours truly (Seth) has been a fan of said Washington franchise since the early 1980s, a time during which the team won frequently and had a culture of excellence. Over the last 20 years or so the team has been at best mediocre, at worst exceedingly poor excepting a golden, shining moment three years ago when a first-year quarterback (you'll have to Google that one) led the team to a division championship and hinted at great things to come that, predictably, have not materialized.
TJ Downing says
Great post Seth. The unfortunate aspect of this discussion is that the group under consideration has been largely neglected throughout the whole of US history, so while it’s pretty obvious that the term is derogatory in many ways, nobody really cares (speaking of most football fans, not me necessarily). It’s kind of interesting because on one side you have a pretty clear cut unethical practice, but on the other side you have almost nothing but apathy from football fans. It’s not much of a polarizing issue from what I can tell simply because Native Americans are so underrepresented in political discourse that the American people don’t seem to care whether or not they’re disparaging them with those kinds of slurs. It’s too bad I think, your solution seems remarkably simple and a great way to preserve much of the iconic traditions the owners claim to hold on to.
Also it might be worth pointing out that the original owner of the team, George Marshall, was notoriously racist and was the last team owner to sign an African-American player I think.
Seth Paskin says
Thanks TJ. Part of what I was trying to point out is that I participate in that ambivalent reaction. I know that the name is wrong in some way but the narrative of Native American oppression isn’t current and wasn’t inculcated through my education and experience in a way that other narratives of oppression have been (African American, Hispanic).
I was trying to say that I have the same emotional connection as the owner but offer a different response. That said, I could take the initiative to overcome my ignorance that breeds the ambivalence and learn more about Native American culture. More importantly, visit and speak with Native Americans to make their narrative more present for me.
And yes, George Marshall was a notorious racist, the team was the last one to integrate and the original name was the Braves.
TJ Downing says
I guess my comment was tangential to the meat of your post. From my experience talking to people about this issue, I get the feeling that no one has anything invested in it and therefore no one cares. I wish the voice of the Native American people would have more of a factor in the discussion, but for the reasons I pointed out, it sadly doesn’t. I also wasn’t characterizing your opinions on the Native Americans as ignorant by any means, or at least didn’t mean to. It seems they’re quite the opposite.
Steve Couch says
Wonderful read Seth, I love your writing style.
I’ve got a concern about your solution, though. As you probably rightly point out, the Seminole partnership with FSU is not altruistic. I take you to mean that both parties are acting, in some capacity, out of self interest. However, couldn’t you extend that to say that one party may not be acting just out of self interest, but out of self preservation? If we could guarantee the material and monetary safety of the Seminole tribe independently, would they still sign up for this arrangement? Does being a mascot help them flourish in any way? Sure there’s the cultural exposure that the Seminole tribe receives from the association with an elite football school that travels around the country and is constantly on TV. But I’d argue that some of the same cultural concerns critics lob at Washington would also stick to FSU’s use of a Native American as a mascot.
Being a mascot weds a whole people to concepts or symbols that are cultivated, not by any legitimate authority, but athletic directors and league executives. Imagine that the Seminole tribe made a push to culturally separate themselves from the (to use a crass word) warrior aspects of their past and more prominently celebrate non-military societal values. That sort of cultural re-imagination could be vetoed by illegitimate powers that wish to preserve the broader cultural connotation of Native Americans as strong, proud, courageous, whatever (as Snyder has been doing). A tribe would seem to lose all agency in crafting their identity.
Just some thoughts. And if this was all supposed to be a sort of Modest Proposal, then I’m an idiot. Solid marketing work up there too, it’s inspiring.
Seth Paskin says
Points well taken, Steve. I’ll be more direct than I was in the post – I assume that the University is providing some form of monetary restitution to the Tribe whether directly in cash or in the form of something like guaranteed admissions or scholarships. I didn’t delve deep on that to see if anything was publicly available.
I can imagine that if I was the Tribe and the University said something like ‘Let us partner with you on this, give us permission and guidance and in exchange we’ll keep 5 slots in every entering class for your high school graduates’ that the Tribe would agree. Education is the #1 path out of poverty and something like that would be a great strategy for the Tribe to take care of their youth.
Two notes about the mascot aspect. I read somewhere that the headdress and costume for Chief Osceola aren’t even Seminole. They are a caricature of some other Tribe(s) traditional dress. If true, then in some sense the Seminole are protecting their tradition at the expense of others. It’s no different than any other caricature except that it is Native American on Native American. Which changes the discourse entirely. That said, I get your point that being a mascot is inherently reductive at best and dehumanizing at worst. I just can’t judge someone for doing it if it is a survival tactic. Or if the alternative is to stand by and let someone appropriate your image with no recompense.
You aren’t an idiot. This isn’t a modest proposal, I’m genuine in my struggle with the issue and my wish that it would get some sort of resolution. Check out this post a friend sent me yesterday after I published:
Luke T says
Yeah, interesting read. I would be curious to see Seth’s reply to Steve Couch’s commentary. I am personally an alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (The Fighting Illini), and remember this subject matter always being heavily-loaded in campus and community discussions. It turns out that the actual Illini were always divided, as well, which made it real a tough issue to come down unambiguously on, one side or the other.
That political / ethical storm rages on today, no doubt, especially in light of recent and more high-profile developments Seth has pointed to in his piece. Personally, I’m going to cheer for my alma mater no matter what their mascot is. U of I has a great tradition, regardless, and hopefully they will be ultimately judged on their academic chops – which is full of honor – vice their marketing posture. A slightly romantic notion, perhaps, but one I would go to the mattress for.
Seth Paskin says
Great perspective Luke. I didn’t think about the Illini (only b/c I have a bunch of relatives who went to FSU). I also didn’t consider that aligning with a Tribe to avoid the differences in the whole diaspora of 556 Tribes might not solve the issue if the one Tribe was also divided among themselves. I guess I had in mind that the team would find a Tribe that was unified in their decision and consciously entered into the partnership. One advantage here is that the team wouldn’t be appropriating the name/image first and then negotiating. In that sense no Tribe would enter into an arrangement without intention and consensus.
In general, I just see the team and the owner’s position as reactionary and short sighted. It just generates more resistance. A true marketing genius would embrace the turmoil and turn it to her advantage. If Mr. Snyder took a proactive stance and did something as radical as this, I think he could turn his image and that of the team/league around, satisfy the fans, generate a ton of money and, by the way, deflect from the fact that minus the brilliance of RGIII he hasn’t put a winning team on the field in over a decade.
Luke T says
Thanks for the reply, Seth. I think your idea (and its expansion in the link you posted in reply to Steve’s comment) is a clever one, even if there are still probably trade-offs that may come about with it. But if the ethic is not making the perfect the enemy of the good, your proposed solution threads the needle better than any other solutions I have heard lately on the subject matter.
Even though the Illini case (which incidentally, and just to make things more complicated, is a confederation of tribes, and not just one “nationhood” unit) is probably a little more nuanced than the Redskins’ dilemma, I can tell you that, growing up in the Midwest, Native Americans’ recovery of identity and dignity was a consistent and prominent thread in my public school education (I am just a couple years younger than you guys, it seems, presently 37).
So, just personally, when I see this perennial debate making its regular cycle, it strikes a chord despite me having no Native American ancestry myself, nor any relatives that would make it a constituent part of their identity. Which is just a long way to say that I enjoyed you raising the topic, because I think it is territory that is still largely overlooked by the culturally-interested in our contemporary media, and an area where perhaps you guys could potentially try to explore, more in depth, if there were indeed any philosophical angle(s) to be harvested from this troubling and embarrassing part of our American history.
Well, since I suggested as much, let me carry that burden first and foremost. But, in the instance you ever want to explore the notion, I have some additional thoughts to dress up the conceit, which I can punch up via this same comment section here, or off-line.
In the meantime, I am eager to see what your other readers will have to add to this conversation. v/r
C. M. Frederick says
Nice piece Seth… I say we launch a campaign to change the name of the Redskins to something vastly more appropriate: The Washington Bluebloods! (Or, perhaps, the more alliterative Washington Whitemen.)
Just a thought.
I agree Seth, Snyder should change the name of his team. Yet, the reason why he should change the name is because naming a team the “redskins” is just plain offensive. Redskins is just not acceptable, given the negative connotation of the word in American history. Snyder has owned the team for a quite bit of years, and he refuses to change the name, given that American Indian activists have brought attention to this issue for years as well. Thus, to compromise to a name that reflects the local indigenous population like the Powhatan, is just, to me, insult to injury. I would say just change the team name to some animal, I don’t care. Is not about pleasing American Indians, just name the team some name other than redskins. It’s just fucking insulting. Would you name a team the Spics, or the Chinks, or worst the Niggers. Just do the right thing Snyder, no fucking compromises or practical solutions. Change the name. Why so hard to do that. That’s all the activists are asking for. As for educating people about Native Americans, well that’s what our education system and our culture should take into consideration, when setting up policies about educating the public about the history and plight of Native Americans. Sorry Seth, for being explicit, it’s just upsetting. Still love what you do brother.
Seth Paskin says
Part of the intent of the piece was to argue in the language of the dominant paradigm. It’s clear that appeals from tribal communities based on standards of decency and consideration for others aren’t working. I was trying to speak in a language Mr. Snyder and his ilk would understand – money. The goal was to provide a solution that would be appealing in his value system but at the same time accomplish the larger goal of changing the name and giving some control and power to tribal peoples.
As I mentioned in the article, the name is currently an appropriation, giving no power to Native Americans. Hence their need to use protests, the legal system and other means (patent office, FCC) to try and drive change. The idea behind a conscious change that involve a specific tribe is that the tribe would consciously enter into the agreement as an equal partner and set the terms of engagement.
I’m well aware of my own complicity in this, which is why I wrote the piece and did so publicly. I get your point of view and was just providing mine to the discussion. I’m quite sympathetic to what you are saying and the fact that it seems to fall on deaf ears prompts my alternative approach.
Good point! I see where you’re coming from. It’s just upsetting in how long this has been dragging on. Again Seth, always keeping us humans focused on the issue at hand. At least this issue has more traction now, with the media attention. Thank you brother for the reply.
“If Powhatan, Nanticoke, Pamlico, Tuscarora, Tutelo or Catawba don’t work Mr. Snyder and team can look elsewhere. Find one with a legacy and preferably a present that embody all of the virtues the team supposedly values and create a relationship that is mutually beneficial.”
It has taken 40 years for Indians to turn the possibility of name change into probability. Oh yeah, it’s gonna happen. But why has it taken so long?
I believe tribal people operate with an entirely different value system than our brothers in the dominant culture. The above quote is a perfect example.
Indians have deal with a culture that worships the dollar bill. How else do you explain a society that sees nothing wrong with cherry-picking through Indian tribes, auditioning the ones with the best stories and then making a ‘deal’ with ‘best-fit’ tribe that is ‘mutually beneficial’ ($$$$$$$)?
“This would put an end to the objections, renew the image of the team, and create a merchandising opportunity surpassing his wildest dreams.”
One more time, with feeling: “…and create a merchandising opportunity surpassing his wildest dreams.”
And what do the Indians get out of this, besides $$$$?
“And maybe, just maybe, he could truly use the team as a platform for educating people about—a specific—Native American culture.”
Maybe, just maybe? Thanks for the afterthought.
Indians see this as a matter of humanity.
Break down the word: red / SKIN.
How does that feel? How do you think it feels to my children?
Your team’s name is disparaging.
Show some pride and do the right thing.
Seth Paskin says
There is no doubt that the value system of tribal peoples differs from that of whites. Why it has taken so long for this issue to get to a point where it can be significantly and nationally discussed has to do with a variety of factors not least of which is the ‘flattening’ of the world via technology and the enablement of broad awareness and action through the internet and media. In any case, it is a welcome development.
If the dominant culture deals in $$$$$ then, provided an equitable and mutual system of exchange can be established, it is up to tribal peoples to assert their own value system and claim what they want out of the relationship. A valid response would be to say simply that no appropriation of any type of image is acceptable.
Conversely, it is up to the dominant culture to create space for this to happen and respect the response. In some small way I was trying to contribute to that end. The last comment about ‘maybe, just maybe’ was intended sarcastically.
Political correctness is thought control.
Those ‘apathetic’ fans know what the name Redskins means, at least for them, and they see ‘the man’ trying to take it away. It’s all a big game, pun intended, teaching the common people that respect for The Law trumps all else. Before that it was an entrapped Donald Sterling playing fall guy to his whoring ‘girlfriend.’ Please Seth, spare us your inner turmoil.
I feel worst for First Nations who believe a name change will help address the legacy of a centuries long genocide perpetrated against the original inhabitants of the so-called New World. In all the hoopla no one has addressed the murder of 90+ million people because this genocide undercuts the priviledged ideology of neoliberals, i.e. — the Holocaust religion.
When philosophy becomes an exclusive conversation between a select people holding the ‘right’ opinions it becomes utterly useless — except as a prop for the self important, velvety voices and all.
Look around man! The world is a-churnin’.
Philosophy minus politics and reality equals bullshit.
Seth Paskin says
I get your sentiment and respect your right to express it. Fortunately the web is full of other things that you can enjoy besides my expression of inner turmoil.
George McLauchlin says
I’m voting for ‘The Washington Abyss’