I Am a Washington Redskin

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I Am a Washington Redskin
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

And I'm gosh darned proud of it, too.

The controversy over Washington Redskins' controversial name flared up again when the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that upheld trademark protection for the team logo and name "Washington Redskins."

After nearly five decades cheering for the team, I just don't want to change to something safe, like Potomac River. "Washington Generals" is already taken.

My late father, bless his soul, took me to my first Redskin game in 1962 because he wanted me to see a Negro—we were all Negroes, then—play for the home team.

The Redskins traded their draft rights to Syracuse sensation Ernie Davis to Cleveland for running back Bobby Mitchell after the 1961 NFL season.

Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, holding to business strategy and personal bigotry, declined to have African-American players on the roster. He would bow to federal pressure and the tide of the Civil Rights Movement and grudgingly accept Mitchell who became a smash hit.

Ironically, Marshall would rather have Native Americans on the team than blacks.

The second head coach in Redskin history was William "Lone Star" Dietz who claimed Native American descent. Dietz signed six football players from the Haskell Indian School in Kansas according the Michael Richman's history in The Redskins Encyclopedia.  

In a further irony, Marshall didn't name his team for Indians, but for baseball teams. It was common in the 1930s for pro football teams to take the name of the local MLB franchise.

When Marshall moved his new franchise to Boston in 1932, the team played in Braves Field, home of the Boston Braves. Marshall called his football team the Boston Braves.

The Boston Football Braves lost its first game to the New York Football Dodgers. They won their second game, the first in franchise history, against the New York Football Giants by the score of 14-6.

Marshall moved the team to Boston's Fenway Park to avoid a rent increase for Braves Field. He might have changed the team name to Red Sox, but wanted to keep the "Braves" tie-in; and thus, "Boston Redskins."

George Marshall moved the team to his home town, Washington, D.C., in 1937 and might have changed the name to the Washington Senators. The Redskins played in Griffith Stadium, home of the MLB Senators.

The Senators were famously "last in the American League" while the Redskins were winners, 1937 NFL Champions. So the team name stuck.     

As great as Bobby Mitchell was, he became greater with the arrival of quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and wide receiver Charley Taylor in 1964. The Redskins were still a losing team, but that trio made them the most exciting losing team in football and endeared them to their fans.

Washington's idea of defense at that time was Sam Huff and 10 other guys.

Those old school NFL teams, Redskins, Giants, Eagles, Steelers, Packers, Bears, Lions, worked their way into the DNA of their communities. They rarely changed communities (sorry, Baltimore Colts fans).

So I imagine there would be as much resistance in Pittsburgh to abandoning the name Steelers as there is in Washington to dropping the name Redskins.

What's more, Redskin fans grow up with the fight song Hail To The Redskins. To drop the Redskin identity means losing the fight song. Opponents haven't quite grasped the hold that tune has on Washington football fans.

There are too many of us with so much history with the team that we consider ourselves Washington Redskins. We mean no insult to ourselves. That identity and the team's underlying relationship with the community is something the plaintiffs, Suzan Harjo, et al, miss.

Harjo hasn't shown that she represents the relevant community—paying football fans, not Native Americans. "Redskins" might have an unsavory connotation in United States history. "Washington Redskins" is something different.

The United States government does not use the term redskin, but they (we) use an Indian head profile on our coinage.

Indeed, the legal action was not directed against the United States government that sponsored the genocidal wars of the nineteeth century that fostered the word redskin as a slur. It was directed against an entertainment business that uses the image as a valiant fighter.     

Football is a violent sport played by powerful men. NFL teams seek names that evoke that sense of strength. Mascots tend to be named for predators (Eagles, Lions, Bears), or workers in tough industries (Steelers, Packers), or men high on testosterone (Giants, Titans, Cowboys), or warriors (Patriots, Vikings, Redskins).

To connect with a modern audience, Redskin opponents ask what if the team were named for one of the milder slurs for African-Americans? Such an example already exists and you can find it on your grocery shelf. Aunt Jemima.

Now owned by the Quaker Oats Company, the Aunt Jemima likeness and logo was created in 1889. It reflected the "mammy" stereotype of old movies and minstrel shows of the early twentieth century that incensed black consumers. To this day, I will not buy the product.

I could not challenge trademark protection for Jemima now for the same reasons cited by the court in the Harjo case.

Market forces, not law suits, caused Quaker Oats to recast the image to something closer to Betty Crocker than to a slave momma. It's market forces, not lawsuits, that will cause Pro Football, Inc. to drop the Redskins logo.

That's the marketing challenge for the plaintiffs. To wean Washington off of Redskins, they have to buy the logo outright, or propose new income streams to compensate the team for the loss of value, or exert a marketplace penalty for use of the term. To wean fans off of Redskins, the plaintiffs have to find a fight song that excites them as much as Hail To The Redskins.

That's a tall order.

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