In the latest development in the name controversy CBS announcers/commentators Phil Simms & Tony Dungy will stop using the name during broadcasts. The debate seems to have staying power. Now other sports journalists will feel some pressure to take a stance, since declining to use the name is now a mainstream option.
In other news, you may have noticed, owner Dan “the Klan” Snyder has a bunch of banner ads on the internet leading to the “Redskins Facts” campaign. OK, I just took a peek at it, and, wow, it’s like they are barely trying. In fact, it’s worth a little tangent from the main point of this post (or you can jump ahead to read about symbol capture).
Here’s the crux of their argument:
None of us believe in offending or discriminating against people of any ethnicity for any reason.
We believe the Redskins name deserves to stay. It epitomizes all the noble qualities we admire about Native Americans—the same intangibles we expect from Washington’s gridiron heroes on game day. Honor. Loyalty. Unity. Respect. Courage. And more.
There are other Native American names to choose from that also epitomize those qualities without sounding arguably offensive.
More than a decade ago, in the authoritative linguistic survey “I Am A Red-Skin: The Adoption of a Native American Expression (1769-1826),” Ives Goddard—the senior linguist and curator at the Smithsonian Institution—concluded that the word “redskins” was created by Native Americans, and that it was first used as an inclusive expression of solidarity by multi-tribal delegations who traveled to Washington, D.C. to negotiate national policy towards Native Americans. “The actual origin of the word (redskin) is entirely benign,” Goddard is quoted as saying.
Prominent Indian leaders of the 19th century—from Sitting Bull (a Hunkpapa Lakota Chief) to French Crow (Principal Chief of the Wahpekute band of Santee Sioux) to Tecumseh (a Shawnee chief)—are documented as having referred to themselves as “Red Men” or “Red-skins.”
The argument is that it is OK because almost 200 years ago the word was acceptable to the target group. Using this logic, they would not oppose a team using the N-word for its name.
On the inaugural Redskins team in 1933, four players and then-head coach William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz identified themselves as Native Americans.
Who chose the name? Notoriously racist (even for the time) team owner George Preston Marshall. The reason recognized by the team ownership was that the name honored the coach and players. Another account says the main reason was to keep the native theme but distinguish the team from the Boston Braves baseball team, simply to avoid confusion.
Why not use the original “Braves” name when they moved to Washington? Perhaps, consistent with Marshall’s character, it was a poke at allowing actual Native Americans on his team — to make it go over a little better with Marshall’s racist friends. The thinking might have been “It’s OK to keep these guys on the roster. See, I’m mocking them a little by picking a more insulting name. Awe at my hate cred, fellas.” Marshall wanted to keep an all-white team. The NFL started to actively integrate in 1946, and Marshall was finally coerced into signing an African American player in 1962.
The Redskins logo in use today was first designed in 1971 in close consultation with Native American leaders. Among those who unanimously approved and voiced praise for the logo was Walter “Blackie” Wetzel, a former President of the National Congress of American Indians and Chairman of the Blackfeet Nation. Years earlier, Mr. Wetzel had been deeply involved with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the movement for civil liberties, civil rights, and economic freedom for all. In 2014, Mr. Wetzel’s son Don commented, “It needs to be said that an Indian from the State of Montana created that [Redskins] logo, and did it the right way. It represents the Red Nation, and it’s something to be proud of.”
This is sidestepping the issue. I think fewer people have issues with the picture than the name. My biggest issue with the logo is the redundant feather around the circle.
The Washington Redskins and Symbol Capture
If this name controversy continues to grow I believe it’s likely we will see some symbol capture of the name and logo. For various reasons symbols have been co-opted and given new meanings. Examples include the fleur-de-lis, the swastika, the Confederate battle flag, and more recently the Gadsden flag. People use them to express a different idea than the original use.
Given the growing controversy, I’m afraid the Washington Redskins will soon suffer symbol capture. Displaying the logo will soon no longer just be a sign of your team loyalty. A lot of fans that love the team, but are mature enough to accept that some reasonable people might find it offensive. These fans can distinguish their love for a team with their opinion about the team name.
Other fans — mostly politically conservative — will take a more reactionary approach. They will bristle at people trying to tell them what they can and can’t call their team. They feel strongly that they have to defend tradition and cherished memories. These fans have trouble separating the symbol from the thing itself. You can still follow the team if it has a different name.
Next comes the far right wing and white supremacist co-option of the team name and logo. There will be some folks (many who are not fans of the team, or even football itself) who may pick up some gear just to shove it in the face of “PC libruls because freedom ‘Murica.” Expect to see Redskins flags flying right next to Confederate or Gadsden flags. You’ll find someone flying a Redskins flag even though they actually root for the Cowboys on Sunday.
As a result of the symbol capture, the moderate Redskins fans will decline to buy or display team paraphernalia even if it does not contain the word “Redskins,” just to not be associated with those extremists. It’s like being a Civil War buff and being uncomfortable showing your collection of artifacts because some of them have Confederate flags.
Symbol capture hasn’t happened yet, so maybe fans can make it through this season letting their fandom show.