Face It, Washington Fans: Your Team's Name is Racist


Living in Maryland means rooting for the traditional Washington NFL team or the newer Baltimore Ravens. Due to the team’s long-standing history, most of us lean toward Washington. Growing up, I remember seeing my uncle’s walls decked out with Washington regalia: football helmets, jerseys, footballs full of signatures, and even an antique Coca-Cola bottle honoring the team. Washington has a very loyal fan base who swears that they are going to win the Super Bowl every year (bless their hearts). Fans stand by the team's so-called "heritage" and traditions; their history and the championship wins of the past. Indeed, in response to growing backlash against the name of the team, owner Dan Snyder wrote in the Washington Post, "Our past isn’t just where we came from — it’s who we are."

Mr. Snyder and I do agree on that — your past is who you are. But, in this case, that's nothing to be proud of.

The original president of the Washington team was George Preston Marshall. Marshall is known for being a particularly special brand of racist who stood against integration of African Americans into the National Football League. Indeed, Marshall refused to integrate until nearly 20 years after the league began integration. His decision to allow African Americans onto the team came only after having his arm twisted by the pro-civil rights Kennedy administration in 1961.

It was Marshall who chose to change the franchie's name (originally in Boston, they were first deemed the Boston Braves) to its current name: the Redskins. Upon his death, Marshall’s estate set up a foundation that stipulated that no funds will be channeled towards "any purpose which supports the principle of racial integration in any form."

Cool guy.

Blackfeet Elder Bob Burns puts the notion that "redskin" is somehow a compliment to rest: " 'Redskins' is part of that mentality from colonial times when our people were hunted by soldiers and mercenaries who were paid for the scalps of our men, women, and children. How can anyone claim this is a proud tradition to come from? The labels, racism, and hatred that Indian people continue to experience are directly tied to those racial slurs." 

For years, American Indian groups have called on the Washington team to change its offensive name. Numerous lawsuits have been filed, protests organized, and widespread campaigns launched, but the franchise has refused to budge. In recent months, however, momentum has been building. Several publications, including Slate, now refuse to print the team name; NFL executives have agreed to meet with tribe leaders; Congressional members led by House delegate Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa sent a letter to the team’s management; and even President Obama has weighed in on the offensive nickname, saying that he would consider changing it if he were the owner.

The pressure led Snyder to pen his letter to the Post, which defended the team and its name by pointing to its history. Conveniently, he leaves out the racist roots of the franchise.

"I think it is a sign that you are doing something wrong if you have to spend so much time and effort defending the idea that you are honoring Native Americans rather than disrespecting them," said Indigenous activist Samantha White of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe. White found Snyder’s letter to be disingenuous.

White takes issue with the term because it "reinforces the stereotypical image of a Native American as being someone who has very dark (almost red) skin, as well as war paint and the ever present feathers in the hair." Plus, it takes away from Native Americans' freedom to define who they are. "This is an image that we have tried to escape, but with the continued use of [derogatory depictions of Natives] along with negative terms like redskin it makes it more difficult to redefine what it means to be Native American and what a Native American looks like," she said.

This isn’t about being politically correct, as knee-jerk opponents say. This is about no longer stripping Indigenous people of their humanity, reducing them to a stereotypical mascot, and naming a sports team after a deep-rooted racial slur. This is about divesting from dangerous language that erases identities to sell tickets. Your sentimental hold onto an offensive tradition does not supersede the people whom you are disenfranchising. 

Dan Snyder has a choice. Washington fans have a choice. They can choose to proudly march on in the same vein as the original owner of the team and continue a legacy of offensive, shameful treatment of actual human beings, or choose to pivot, start fresh, and create a new legacy as the football team of the nation’s capital. If no change occurs, Washington owners and fans must be willing to accept the fact that every time they put on their jerseys and head to a game, sing the fight song, and chant the chants, they are reinforcing dangerous, violent, and, yes, racist stereotypes.

 I, for one, will never write "redskin" again, even if it means never talking about "my" team.