This article, from Issue XXV of Gridiron, originally appeared in 2016. For individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE
Hours after agreeing to become the 28th coach in the history of Washington, Jay Gruden described the opportunity as a “once in a lifetime deal” and vowed to do “everything possible to return the franchise to its former glory”. The task facing the 46-year old was enormous; turn an American sporting institution from its downtrodden state – they’d just missed the playoffs again for the 17th time in the past 21 seasons – and make them relevant again.
On the field, Gruden needed to fix a team who’d won just three games in the season before he took over, and his plan – to ride a former fourth-round pick from Michigan State to the summit of the NFC East – has, in part, succeeded. Yet it was off the field where he faced perhaps his biggest battle. Because the team for which he’s the figurehead remains at the centre of a racism row that has embroiled a nation, to the point where the President himself has become involved.
For years, many people have questioned why the team continues to use a name – Redskins – that many Native Americans find so offensive. And now a concerted campaign from lawmakers, politicians and journalists is bringing the debate to a head. But the team ownership refuses to budge and the NFL finds itself caught up in a row that won’t die. “It’s a critical time for us,” Ray Halbritter, the leader of the federally recognised tribe Oneida Nation, tells Gridiron. “This campaign isn’t going away anytime soon, no matter how much the NFL or Daniel Snyder wants it to.”
The team originated as the Boston Braves in 1932 but, a year later, moved to Fenway Park and became the Boston Redskins. In 1937, they relocated again, this time to Washington, where they’ve remained ever since, their name transcending sport in the US. They’ve won three Super Bowls and 14 division titles and boast one of the largest and most loyal fanbases in the world, and they’re not alone in the controversial name stakes; many American sports teams are named after indigenous peoples. However, as the years have passed, there’s been an increased sensitivity to those that were thought to be crude or stereotypical.
“It’s hurtful for us to hear. The English Dictionary says it’s an offensive term and it is. There is no grey area. It’s bad for the image of the National Football League to be using a racial epithet and making money out of it”
The Kansas City Chiefs, baseball’s Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, along with college football’s Florida State Seminoles, have all survived, with the latter forming an agreement with the Seminole Tribal Council to use their nickname. But the Redskins may not be so lucky.
“It’s derogatory, it’s dehumanising, it’s degrading and it’s high time this was addressed and changed because it gives the wrong message to the world” says Halbritter. “It’s hurtful for us to hear. The English Dictionary says it’s an offensive term and it is. There is no grey area. It’s bad for the image of the National Football League to be using a racial epithet and making money out of it.”
Support for Halbritter is growing. Two years ago, a Washington State senator sent a strongly worded letter to Roger Goodell urging the league to “take a formal position in support of a name change”. Subsequently, a further 49 senators have followed suit. Goodell, who has refused to take a stance on the debate in the past, told reporters before the Super Bowl that the league has been spending “the last year talking to many of the native American communities to make sure we understand the issues. Let me remind you: this is the name of a football team, a football team that’s had that name for 80 years and has presented the name in a way that has honoured Native Americans.”
But Senator Maria Cantwell, who sent the letter to the commissioner, disputes the league’s position: “This term does not honour – but rather disparages – Indian people and tribes. The NFL is on the wrong side of history. What message does it send to punish slurs against African Americans while endorsing slurs against Native Americans?”
In a statement responding to the criticism, the team itself said there are “many issues more pressing to native peoples than the name of a football team which has received strong support from Native American groups”.
Yet district lawmakers agree with Cantwell. Four years ago they voted overwhelmingly in favour of a change, calling it “insulting and debasing” and challenging the notion that the ‘Redskins’ name should be kept as a symbol of the team’s heritage: “That’s akin to saying to the Native American people that your pain has less worth than our football memories,” said DC council member David Grosso. And the case has support from the Oval Office as well. President Obama said that, if he owned the franchise, he’d think long and hard about changing the name. “I don’t know whether an attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”
If the President isn’t able to force a change, then perhaps the power of the media can. Many of America’s biggest newspapers have banned the use of the name in its pages, including the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and the New York Daily News. NBC’s leading sports anchor Bob Costas recently condemned its use during a broadcast and The MMQB’s Peter King – arguably the most respected football journalist in the States – has also taken a stance. “For two or three years, I’ve been uneasy when I sat down to write about the team,” he tells Gridiron. “I’ve tried to use it sparingly, but I decided to stop entirely because it offends too many people. I can do my job without using it and I will.”
And although there’s no sign yet that players will take a stand against the name despite a growing band of social activism, led by Colin Kaepernick, former referee Mike Carey revealed last year that the NFL had honoured his request not to work Washington’s games during the final eight years of his career, explaining, “It just became clear to me that to be in the middle of the field, where something disrespectful is happening, was probably not the best thing for me.”
About three thousand high schools, middle schools and colleges are following the media’s lead and have changed their nicknames. California, the most populous state in America and home to four NFL franchises, passed legislation last year ensuring no public school will ever call itself what Washington’s team calls itself. And in Madison, Wisconsin, a rare liberal town in mid-America, kids can’t wear clothing to school with native-themed teams on it. But none of this matters for fans like Denise Perry from Maryland. For her, any change would represent a tarnishing of the very fabric of the team. “Calling it anything else would take away from the meaning and the history of the Redskins I grew up with,” she tells Gridiron. “If the owners ever considered a name change, I would join the protests against that.”
Perry is part of a burgeoning power base within the Native American community who’ve reached a point of ennui around the topic and don’t believe that anything should change. A recent Washington Post poll of almost 600 people said that nine out of ten Native Americans aren’t affected by the name. The results, celebrated by Dan Snyder but denounced by prominent community leaders, could make it that much harder for anti-name activists to pressure Washington officials, who are already using the poll as further justification to retain the moniker.
Beyond that, the findings might impact the ongoing legal battle over the team’s federal trademark registrations after an appeals court ruled before Christmas that the US government can’t ban offensive trademarks, arguing that the practice violates the First Amendment. “The Washington Redskins, our fans and community have always believed our name represents honour, respect and pride,” Snyder said in a statement. “The Washington Post polling shows Native Americans agree. We are gratified by this overwhelming support from the Native American community, and the team will proudly carry the Redskins name.”
However, Susan Harjo, a plaintiff in the case against a name change, doesn’t agree with the findings of the poll, or the owner’s statement: “I just reject the results,” said Harjo, who belongs to the Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee tribes. “I don’t agree with them, and I don’t agree that this is a valid way of surveying public opinion in Indian Country. This team will never honour what we stand for.”
The social zeitgeist tends to agree and continues to pour scorn on Snyder’s position, maintaining that opinions have evolved rapidly over the past few years and his unyielding and old-fashioned stubbornness has been subjected to a barrage of condemnation by critics as wide-ranging as the TV show South Park, which dedicated a whole episode to his stance, to the United Church of Christ.
“Calling it anything else would take away from the meaning and the history of the Redskins I grew up with. If the owners ever considered a name change, I would join the protests against that”
For now, any legal objections seem unlikely. In 2009, the United States Supreme Court refused to take up the case despite the US trademark office agreeing with the Native Americans that the term ‘Redskins’ is a racial epithet and any further challenges seemed doomed to failure under that First Amendment. The man who ultimately gets to decide whether the name stays or goes is, of course, Snyder but, in a recent letter to season ticket holders before the Washington Post poll, he underlined his team’s position: “It will never happen. It’s that simple. NEVER. And you can use the caps. The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honour.”
But that position doesn’t wash with many: “A tomahawk chop and a bunch of people wearing redface does not honour me in any sense of the word, and it certainly does not honour Native American children,” said Tara Houska, a member of the Couchiching First Nation. “To me, it doesn’t matter if my feelings are hurt. Yes, it is offensive, and I don’t like seeing it everywhere. But what really matters is how this affects our youth.”
So what now, given that there seems to be an impasse? Snyder is clearly not going to renege on his position, given how hard he’s fought to maintain it and the NFL’s response to the outrage has been underwhelming to say the least. The league has become a something of a clearing house for the nation to discuss many of its most pressing topics: from race, to domestic violence, social change to drugs and much of what happens in Goodell’s league reflects the very fabric of modern American society. And yet, much like modern American society, for better or for worse, nothing much seems to get done.
“I’m past surprise when it comes to them,” says Houska. “The fact that we’re even talking about this baffles me. It’s a straight-up slur. A dictionary-defined racial slur. It should be a no-brainer, but somehow it’s not.”
This article originally appeared in Issue XXV of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE