In what is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable “situation” for the NFL and the Washington Redskins franchise, a handful of Congressional members announced Tuesday that they had sent a letter to the league and franchise respectively, urging a name change.
Before going into the legitimacy of their argument, it is important that the term not be severed from its historical context, a mistake made way too often in these sorts of arguments. Redskin, an explicitly derogatory term long reserved for Native American people, is part of a larger story of conquest, subjugation, and oppression and should be recognized as such. If we are to take ugly elements of our country’s history critically and make good effort to improve upon it, the vicious legacy of such words should be called into question and subsequently eliminated.
The term Redskins functions in a very similar fashion to other derogatory terms assigned to Blacks, Asians, Mexicans, Jews, and others. There is a stigma that is appropriated for those that would dare utter those words, and for good reason. So why is it different when it comes to Native Americans? Could we imagine a scenario in which a brand franchise that has been around since Jim Crow went by the name the Cleveland Negroes (or worse)? Could we imagine in that same scenario, a justification that appealed to tradition, the same exact way it is being appealed to today? Those making that point would lose all credibility, and for good reason.
What does not get mentioned enough is the fact that the founder and labeler of the Redskins franchise, George Preston Marshall, who, when the team was located in Boston in the 1930s, named them the Braves after the city’s then-National League baseball team, before switching to the Redskins. Marshall was a known white supremacist, a point Dave Zirin makes in a piece on the subject. Marshall, known for his staunch opposition to integrating his own team, was issued an ultimatum by then attorney general Robert F. Kennedy: Sign a black player or give up the lease on your government financed stadium. By maintaining this ugly term as a nod to tradition, the Redskins are carrying on the dark legacy of its original ownership and its white supremacist underpinnings, regardless of their intent.
It is understandable that the raising of issues such as these is always going to open up new cans of worms. What then, about the Atlanta Braves? The Cleveland Indians? The Chicago Blackhawks? It is not entirely clear that this is the dreadful thing that some make it out to be. Perhaps this issue can spark a new conversation on race, with a Native American twist, a social group that too often gets left out of the conversation. Perhaps new traditions can rise to the forefront as we come to terms with what it means to be a free and just society.
When protestations of tradition rear their head, it is here that the words of Prince Akeem (Coming To America) are so important as he reminds us, “It is also tradition that times must and always do change, my friend.”