The Washington Redskins and how not to honor Native Americans

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“Let me remind you, this is the name of a football team, a football team that has had that name for 80 years and has presented the name in a way that has honored Native Americans. We recognize that there are some who don’t agree with the name and we have listened and respected them. But if you look at the numbers, including in Native American communities, in a Native American community poll, nine out of ten supported the name. Eight out of ten Americans in the general population would not like us to change the name. So, we are listening. We are being respectful of people who disagree, but let’s not forget this is the name of a football team.”
– NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, (Jan. 31, 2014)

I’m still not sure if it’s appropriate to use the term “Redskins” in a column. On one hand, it’s a team name, something that almost has to be referenced if only so the phrase “the Washington football club” doesn’t appear 30 times too many in an article. On the other hand, it’s a racial slur, one that could easily offend any reader that may click on this link.

The NFL, though, has taken that step too far. For all the talk we’ve heard in the past (and especially over the past year) about a potential Redskins name change, there really hasn’t seemed to be much change in the minds of the decision makers. That fact remained abundantly clear Friday morning, when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell held his annual, pre-Super Bowl press conference, this time at the Rose Theater in New York City.

In the past, Goodell has stated support for the Redskins’ team name, which has come under more fire than ever this year. So Friday, a reporter asked a pretty smart question after wondering if and when the NFL would change Washington’s team name to something more racially appropriate: “Would you feel comfortable calling an American Indian a ‘redskin’ to his or her face?”

Of course, Goodell didn’t answer that question directly. How could he possibly do that while still maintaining any sort of consistency with his previous opinions? How could he answer honestly without either ticking off Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who has also staunchly supported the Redskins’ name, or offending an entire race of people? He couldn’t. It wouldn’t be possible. So Goodell did the best he could.

He was, after all, at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center. He had likely been preceded on that stage – at some point in time – by Baryshnikov or Rudolf Nureyev. So Goodell took a page of their their playbook, dancing and dancing and dancing around the question until everyone in the crowd was as wide-eyed as a Funny Faced Audrey Hepburn locked into his Fred Astaire.

Goodell urged the audience, made up of media members, players, owners, and more, to remember that “this is the name of a football team”, the ultimate way to trivialize the issue. He stated that the NFL has presented the team name in a way that has “honored” Native Americans. But was Disney naming its lead crow “Jim Crow” in Dumbo honorable? Was proceeding to have all of the crows speak in jive honorable? Was Peter Pan wondering “Why is the red man red?” honorable? Because yes, I’m sure Roger Goodell thinks throwing a feather on a logo’s head and letting a mascot dance around like Lee Corso on ecstasy is honorable. But it’s not. It most certainly is not.

Goodell said he has spent the year talking to American Indian leaders (though he didn’t at all specify who those leaders were and what exactly made them “leaders” to begin with) and that “In a native American community poll, nine out of ten supported the name.” We don’t know the details of this poll. We don’t know how many people participated in it. We don’t know which people took part in it. We just know nine out of ten, 90 percent. And how? Because Goodell said so.

And that’s really the issue here. It’s the prevailing problem we’ve had in the Redskins’ name debate forever. It’s the main contention in most conversations we have about what’s racist and what isn’t. It all comes down to a “Because he said so” response.

Why is the Redskins’ name honorable? Because Goodell says so. 

Why is the Redskins’ name here to stay and not a slur? Because Dan Snyder says so.

It’s arbitrary. It’s strangely autocratic. It leads to purely unilateral decisions. And that’s why we haven’t seen any change.

This may not be just an issue of tradition. It’s possible it goes beyond that. After all, you can usually figure out the reasons behind decisions like this if you just follow the money. Snyder likely doesn’t want to change a brand that has been around for decades. Goodell probably doesn’t have any desire to switch around the team name of one of the most popular franchises in his league. But this eventually comes to a point when it should no longer be about the money, even if a reasonable person can argue that a new team name, new jerseys and a new logo can actually yield a spike in immediate memorabilia sales since everything Redskins would instantly fall out-of-date with a name change. Ultimately, it just comes down to racial respect.

Maybe nine out of ten Native Americans really do support the Redskins’ name. I wouldn’t know. I haven’t spoken to a statistically significant amount of American Indians to find out exactly what the numbers are or what they should be. But what we do know is that the Oneida Nation has been fighting against the term “redskins” for years. What we do know is that there are plenty more people of the same race fighting against a slur that became popular, in part, because King George II offered bounties to colonists who would bring back scalps of Native Americans, particularly the Penobscot Indians, in the mid-18th century. We know that any term that prevails because of a massive genocide probably isn’t a good one to keep in your vocabulary.

Still, we continue to use it. Because it’s “honorable”. Because it’s “tribute”. Because we’re slightly brainwashed. Because we don’t know any better. And ultimately, the fact that an anti-racism movement has to exist in 2014 should be reason enough to do away with the term all together.


Fred Katz is the managing editor of all things Jets at cover32.com. His work has appeared on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, Bleacher Report, and RotoWire. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz or contact him at Fred@cover32.com.


NEXT: Three reasons the Redskins still have hope.


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