THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
So the Washington Redskins are no more. The team’s announcement that the nickname would be dropped, and that a new one had been selected, came as a shock to many who recalled the 2015 controversy challenging the use of a slang term deemed denigrating to Native Americans, and the resistance of owner Daniel Snyder to any change. Snyder had even sued the government successfully when it withdrew protected trademark status from the Redskins name and logo on the grounds it was offensive.
Five years later, what had changed? The immediate impetus came from the popular surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Seattle. The video of that killing, like the news film of the attack on civil rights marchers on Bloody Sunday at Selma, Alabama’s Edmond Pettus Bridge in 1965, seemed to shock America to its core. When you see NASCAR, whose core audience comes from the South, drop the confederate flag from its teams and racetracks, you sense the size of the sea-change. [Read Mike Carlson’s thoughts on the NASCAR Confederate flag ban here.]
The impact on Snyder was less direct; his team took action only after FedEx, their stadium sponsor, threatened to withdraw its sponsorship, apparel companies like Nike threatened to stop making Redskins merchandise, and huge chain stores like Walmart and Target began removing that merchandise from the shelves. This is America; shock gets people into the street, but money talks in the ownership suite.
As I write this, a new name has been chosen but not yet announced because there are trademark issues. This is America, and it would appear that whatever new identity Snyder (and new coach Ron Rivera) have chosen has already been taken by a trademark ‘squatter’, the most prominent of whom, in this case is one Martin McCauley, who has been claiming likely replacements for Redskins since the 2015 case, and manufacturing memorabilia, in order to get around the fact that you must ‘use’ a trademark in order to register it. So the team is right now is either negotiating with him, or taking him to court arguing he had not intent to actually ‘use’ the trademarks, except to squeeze money from the team.
The top contenders McCauley grabbed included Warriors, which was a front-runner until Snyder announced the team would also change its logo, which had been an Indian head in profile, a stronger version of the old Indian Head penny, which was American currency through much of the twentieth century. More likely now is some variant on Red Tail or Red Tailed Hawk. The ‘Red’ allows them to easily alter the team’s fight song, composed by its original owner, George Preston Marshall, while also honoring the Red Tails, the Army Air Corps flyers in World War II who came from the Tuskegee, Alabama flight school. That the school, the unit, and the army itself were all segregated, by order of the War Department in Washington, is really the only connection with the nation’s capital, but it is a much-needed gesture. And many fans in the military-friendly NFL were calling for a new nickname that honored ‘the troops’.
The toppling of statues of slave-holders and heroes of the Confederate rebellion reminds us that history is being re-examined in the wake of Black Lives Matter, and the Redskins’ history isn’t one that suggests giving the team the benefit of the doubt. They were originally called the Boston Braves, because they played at Braves Field, and in the 1930s teams in other sports regularly borrowed the names of successful baseball teams in their cities; see the New York football Giants (and past teams called Yankees and Dodgers) if you doubt that. The Braves had their name either because their owner liked the Indian head logo of the Tammany club which ran politics in New York, and/or because the Boston Tea Party terrorists disguised themselves as Indians. But Marshall got himself a better deal at Fenway Park, and not wanting to give the Braves any further support, and wishing to capitalize on the Red Sox, changed the name to Redskins. Soon he moved the team to Washington, where his family’s fortunes had been made in a chain of laundries, wrote the fight song, and (Sammy) Baugh’s your uncle.
Cynics among us might have suggested the team be called the DC Beltway Bandits. The best suggestion I received from someone else was Kris Head’s idea of the Washington Thinskins, with a profile of President Trump on the helmets. The Dan Yankees would honor the current owner, whose money came from theme parks.
The Watergators would have a nice alliterative ring, and allow for a cute mascot as well. Or we could honor the military of the past two centuries, who among other things ‘subdued’ the actual redskins, and call Washington’s team the Fighting Caucasians.
That’s facetious, of course, but the serious question remains about sports nicknames and the level of offense they cause. The central point is not that polls may register a significant proportion of Native Americans who aren’t that bothered, or that researchers will find high schools on Native American land who call themselves Redskins. The point is that a dismissive nickname for an entire people will always offend a significant number, not only of that people, but of others who would rather be more respectful. And in that situation, why continue offending?
Even it Britain, names have been an issue. Rugby’s Saracens examined their name a couple of years ago, contending it referred to the warriors who fought the Crusaders, though it was used by such Crusaders as a synonym for Moslems, and downplayed the imagery. Similarly, Exeter Chiefs seem likely to ditch their American Indian mascot, perhaps to concentrate on chieftains of Celtic tribes in the area. Though I would suggest, like Washington, they look at World War II airmen: the Polish pilots in a squadron of night fighters based near Exeter were known as the Eagle Owls, which is a fantastic nickname.
Yes, sports take the brunt of the damage when we look for symbolic gestures. We ask athletes to boycott events while we allow businesses to continue doing business with the countries we boycott. You will hear people say sport should not be political, but it is, and always has been, political. That’s why colleges were quicker to move away from Native American based nicknames. Dartmouth dropped the unofficial ‘Indians’ nickname in 1974. Stanford were the Indians from 1930 to 1972; rather than honor Leland Stanford and call themselves the Robber Barons, they settled on the school color, Cardinal. The St John’s Redmen had an Indian mascot, which saw them change to the Red Storm. The ongoing question of whether the appropriation of a people as mascots is on the face of it demeaning. Florida State honors Seminole tribe with their agreement, as does Utah and the Utes (who, after all, loaned their name to the state itself). But in North Dakota, the Fighting Sioux became the Fighting Hawks by vote of the state legislature, in the face of a divided Lakota nation.
There have even been questions about Notre Dame calling itself the Fighting Irish (implying bellicosity?). There are a number of colleges called the Fighting Scots. Iona are the Gaels. Hofstra are the Flying Dutchmen, but who in America knows that this refers to a ship, not a people? Alfred are the Saxons, Idaho the Vandals, USC the Trojans, though the mascot does not ride onto the Coliseum field on (or in) a wooden horse. And what about the Boston Celtics or New York Knickerbockers? Those NBA teams would say the names honor their local history, and the Irish and Dutch have not yet complained.
At the very least, Notre Dame is reconsidering its leprechaun mascot. Which is precisely what Native American organizations have now asked other teams to consider. There is a difference between Redskins and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs or baseball’s Atlanta Braves, and both are looking at sending things like the Tomahawk chop to the same graveyard as Chief Noc-A-Homa. Cleveland’s Indians may have a bigger problem, even if Chief Wahoo hasn’t been seen since 2018. The team’s name has various origin stories, the best-known, that it was named for Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot known as the Deerfoot of the Diamond, who played for the Cleveland Spiders for three years in the 1890s. The Spiders were a different team, in a different league. But when the Indians adopted the nickname in 1915, there was no mention of Sockalexis, who died in 1913 from alcoholism. There were however heap plenty newspaper articles claiming the tribe would go on the warpath and scalp opponents. See Bob Uecker’s classic performance in the film Major League!
If there is anything the past few months have taught us, it is that we need to listen to voices that may not have received much attention before. We need to discuss issues of identity carefully: you might argue such questions distract from bigger problems, but until a nation feels comfortable with itself, which means with each other, no real progress is possible. In today’s internet world, offense is the easiest path to take. It is certainly true to say sports can unite us. They can also divide, and if we can eliminate just a small part of that division, the short-term pain is likely worthwhile.
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