Last month, hundreds of activists protested at the Washington Redskins game in Minnesota. Many of the protesters, including Minnesota’s Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, were Native American. “It is completely outrageous to me and so many others that the Washington football team name is a racial slur,” she said. This editorial board believes the Washington team should be renamed and rebranded.
The name and symbolism associated with the Washington team further false tropes regarding Native Americans. The term “Redskin” itself, and its use to describe a sports team, brands Native Americans in a pejorative, dehumanizing fashion. Ray Halbritter, Representative of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, called the name “a dictionary-defined slur that is clearly detrimental to the welfare of the NFL’s image.” Moreover, the team’s imagery portrays Native Americans as one unitary stereotype, ignoring the diversity of the community and creating a caricature of what it means to be Native American.
The Washington football franchise has a troubling history of racism. After moving the team to D.C. in 1937, team owner George Preston Marshall staunchly opposed hiring African-American athletes on the team. This policy lasted until 1962, when Washington became the last team in the NFL to integrate. Marshall only reversed his position when Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall issued an order requiring him to dissolve the anti-integration policy under threat of eviction from the new, federally owned R.F.K. Stadium.
In 1933, before moving to the city, Marshall changed the team name from its original “Braves” to “Redskins,” supposedly in honor of the hiring of head coach William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz. Dietz’s heritage has been subject to much questioning, as he was accused of falsely presenting himself as Native American, and the question was never fully resolved in court. Marshall’s dubious reasoning is hardly worth its effects—in 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the retirement of the use of Native Americans as mascots and their images as logos due to the detrimental psychological effects the practice can have on the perception of Native people.
For many years now, high school, college, and professional sports teams across the country have slowly been changing their names and associated imagery to stop using Native American stereotypes and symbols, and it’s time for the D.C. team to follow suit. California banned the use of the term “Redskin” as a public school team name in 2015. In 2018, Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians stopped using the “Chief Wahoo” logo. Earlier this year, Maine passed a law banning the use of Native Americans and their traditions in the names, images, and logos of public schools. These changes in titles and images are crucial steps in reforming public perception of Native Americans as a monolith or as mythical characters and opens up space to view them as individuals and equal members of our society.
Dan Snyder, the current owner of the Washington franchise, told USA TODAY in 2013, “We will never change the name of the team.” His uncompromising stance on the subject reflects an unwillingness to listen to the protests of Native groups all over the country who have long protested the franchise’s name and symbolism.
In 2014, 50 U.S. senators sent an open letter to the NFL requesting that it endorse the name to be changed, and the Washington Post editorial board decided to stop using the name “Redskins.” With so many advocating for the change, Snyder’s resistance is regrettable and echoes Marshall’s racist history. It is not unheard of for professional sports teams to rebrand themselves on the basis of social issues, either. The National Basketball Association’s Washington Wizards changed their name from the Bullets in 1997 to avoid an association with gun violence.
Today, R.F.K. Stadium is set to be razed by 2021. Standing outside the stadium is a memorial to Marshall. In 2017, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry supported renaming the street outside Fenway Park that paid tribute to a racist predecessor of his. Given Marshall’s racist legacy, the Washington team’s ownership should likewise encourage that the Marshall memorial be removed along with the stadium, instead of reiterating that they are not affiliated with the land it resides on. As they do so, in recognition of the problematic history which includes their team name and symbols, they should rebrand the team so that it no longer portrays a diverse group of people in a homogeneous and damaging manner. For a professional sports team to exist in D.C. today with an overtly racist name and symbolism is unacceptable.