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.