My Turn: For the Washington Redskins and the NFL, there is no defense

Last modified: Thursday, September 04, 2014
As the new football season hurdles toward us, the controversy over whether the Washington Redskins need to change the team name has heated up. The controversy is hardly new. It has been actively going on for more than 40 years.

In 1972, a delegation of Native Americans, including Dennis Banks from the American Indian Movement, LaDonna Harris, president of Americans for Indian Opportunity, and Leon Cole, president of the National Congress of American Indians, met with Edward Bennett Williams, president of the Redskins. They told Williams to shelve the racially derogatory epithet, Redskins. They also wanted Williams to get rid of the Redskinettes, the pseudo-Indian sideline dancing girls, and they wanted him to change the lyrics in the fight song “Hail to the Redskins.” Williams made no promises, but he did listen.

Williams’s only concession had to do with the fight song lyrics.

“The swamp ’ems, scalp ’ems and heap ’ems is a mockery of dialect,” he said. “We won’t use those lyrics anymore.”

When the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1988, Native Americans staged their first national protest about the issue. Many Native Americans wrote the Redskins and asked for a name change.

In 1992, more than 2,000 people protested in Minnesota at the Super Bowl between the Redskins and the Buffalo Bills. The American Indian Movement led that protest that included representatives from the Chippewa, Sioux, Winnebago and Choctaw tribes.

In the last two years, the controversy has surfaced again, and it has begun to pick up steam. Twenty-three Native American tribes have publicly protested the name and negative stereotyping of Native Americans. Among the tribes are the Cherokee, the Comanche, the Oneida Indian Nation and the Navajos.

In June, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office voted to cancel the trademarks held by the Redskins because they were considered disparaging to Native Americans.

Still, the name is like a cat with nine lives. Earlier this year, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder vowed he would never change the name. Snyder said: “It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.” Without being too cynical, it is hard not to imagine that Snyder is calculating the costs of going either way.

In the media, opponents of a name change such as Rush Limbaugh, Mike Ditka and Sarah Palin have weighed in. They deny the name is a slur. They have said the name honors Native Americans, and they believe the controversy is an example of P.C. thought policing.

While I would acknowledge there are far weightier issues facing Native Americans, this is not a hard call. The name has to change. It should have happened already. The failure to change the name reflects a blind spot in the dominant culture and in the NFL.

Everything, including the Redskins name, is in a historical context. The term redskin goes back to the Colonial era. I think it is fair to say that the term has had far more negative than positive connotations. Stereotyping and dehumanizing native people was part of the process of western expansion. I will not delve into the history of military conquest and repeated treaty violations. I would submit though that stereotyping and using names like redskin made it easier for the conquerors to justify their actions.

I do not think it is an accident that if you consult American English dictionaries, the term is classified as “usually offensive,” “disparaging,” “insulting” and “taboo.”

Changing the name is a matter of respect for Native Americans. By any conceivable standard it is utterly offensive even though it has been tolerated until now. As has been pointed out by others, you would never see the Washington Blackskins or the California Yellowskins. It would never happen.

To this day, Native Americans remain marginalized in America. The historical crimes committed against Native Americans are not acknowledged. Our culture alternates between romanticizing native people and ignoring them. Really if you look at the two major political parties, I would say native issues are on no agenda. Yet, Native American poverty is epidemic. High rates of unemployment, ill health, alcoholism and incarceration are very common.

Continuing to use a term that Native American have widely rejected is simply wrong. It adds insult to injury.

Finding a few Native Americans who like the Redskins name is laughable. As is the use of public opinion polls to justify a racist name. The NFL has just discovered domestic violence. Maybe now it can also discover racism.

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is an administrative law judge. His column reflects his own view and not that of his employer, the Social Security Administration.)