Washington Redskins: NFL Celebrates 80 Years of Disparagement

Stephen Sonneveld@@S_SonneveldCorrespondent IIIJuly 30, 2012

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Washington Redskins. The D.C. franchise is the NFL's highest grossing ($345 million) and second-most valuable ($1.55 billion).

That's ticket sales, concessions, merchandise and advertising all earned on a racial epithet.

Oh, I know, I know. Eyes roll every time an editorial like this sees print. They pop up, they fade away, and nothing ever changes.

I first became aware of this issue in the mid-1980s on the Phil Donahue show. An American Indian activist employed the phrase "Washington [N-words]" to pointedly demonstrate how offensive the word "Redskin" was to his people.

That was in the mid-1980s.

It is 2012 and the NFL hasn't done a thing.

You'd think that after the Civil Rights Movement, African-American players would be especially sensitive to how our American Indian brothers and sisters are demeaned for profit.

I wonder if they would be offended to visit their team's website and see an advertisement emblazoned with a minstrel caricature touting, "Bank of America is proud to be the official bank of the Washington [N-words]."

It's a wonder the NFL players, for all the good they do, never banded together to remove this hurtful word. I wondered that, too.

So, on July 14, I emailed Carl Francis, the Director of Communications at the NFL Players Association. After a brief introduction, I wrote:

The NCAA and local school districts are demonstrating respect for Native American communities by discontinuing such hurtful words and imagery, yet the NFL has no qualms about a team name that is a substitute for a racial signifier; "skin" is in the very word.

What is the NFLPA going to do about this?

Before you reply, I ask that you read this passage from one of my articles:

Consider the comments by Sanford, Maine, resident James Auger when the School Committee voted on May 7 to stop using the Redskins name at his alma mater Sanford High School. Auger said no offense was meant toward Native Americans, but made it equally clear, "No matter how you vote tonight, you are not taking away my Redskins (varsity sports) jacket or my yearbook."

In the same Indian Country Today article where Mr. Auger was quoted, Donna Loring, a member of the Penobscot tribal nation, makes the point that racist indoctrination affects everyone. People don't question accepting an insensitive mascot because it is "what they have been taught and what their parents have been taught. It's generations of thinking and not really understanding what Native people have not only suffered but accomplished."

No reply.

Still, one has to wonder how the money men owners can continually and in good conscience profit from such a blatantly racist term all these years. So, on July 26, I emailed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a similar email to the one above, but added:

What are the owners going to do about this?

Before you reply, I ask that you read this passage from one of my planned articles:

Would Jewish NFL owners Arthur Blank, Randy Lerner, Jim Irsay, Zygi Wilf, Robert Kraft, Al Davis, Jeffrey Lurie, Malcolm Glazer, Stephen Ross and Steve Tisch ever allow such an affront? No, probably not. But they abide Red-skin.

As a matter of fact, another Jewish NFL owner is the Redskins' very own Daniel Snyder, and such an offensive scenario was actually once presented to him. The incident is recounted in the book "Capital Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist," by lobbyist cum criminal Jack Abramoff:

"In my letter to Snyder, I asked him how we would feel if the New York team were called the [antisemitic phrase], or worse. Moreover, I knew that all Native Americans resented the use of the feathered headdress in the team band’s uniform. I asked how he would feel if the New York [antisemitic phrase] band had a uniform of black hats and prayer shawls...

"Snyder called me within hours of receiving the letter, and reviewed each point with me. He was kind and gracious, not the imperious brat the media had portrayed him to be. He said that he sympathized with my points about the team’s name, but he had been a Redskins fan since he was a kid, and he couldn’t bring himself to change it."

Jack Abramoff was equitable in his illegal activities, as well, having swindled Indian nations along with everyone else. This man should not be the voice of moral reason in any conversation, yet he is with Snyder regarding that oh so cherished team name.

Just as Abramoff held the financial futures of so many in his selfish scheme, Snyder sympathizes that he is promoting a racist image, and though he has the means to end the practice, he chooses not to... because he liked the name when he was a kid.

I didn't get a reply from this email either.

Yes, there's a bevy of reasons why an email wasn't responded to. However, the questions remain, and now that they're out there, they warrant a reply.

As long as this racist team name exits, a case can be made that the NFL players come off looking like hypocrites and cowards, and the owners like money-grubbing profiteers of human misery.  Others, however, have taken the issue to heart and are helping to create the needed change.

When Kathleen Rutledge, Editor of Lincoln, Nebraska's Journal Star announced the paper would no longer reference offensive terms such as Redskins in their sports reporting, she gave credit to "the words of a Lakota man who recalled that he wore a 'Redskins' T-shirt as a boy. He thought it was cool. When he was older, when he heard fans 'woo-wooing,' he saw things differently. 'I felt like a cardboard cutout, a cartoon,' he said."

It is unfortunate Daniel Snyder has no appreciation for how his beloved Redskins affects reservation childhoods.

Perhaps Snyder is just following the racist example established by his predecessor, Redskins founding owner George Preston Marshall.

According to Thomas G. Smith's Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins, Marshall made certain no African-American player ever donned his team's gear from 1946-1961. Part of this was because he wanted his all-white team to reap the financial rewards of segregated Southern markets, a fact evident even in the lyrics his wife wrote for the team's fight song.

Smith claims the only force that could break the team's segregation was the moral outrage of the Kennedy Administration, specifically Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.

At that time, the Redskins had a 30-year lease to play at D.C. Stadium, which was on Department of the Interior land. Udall had President Kennedy agree to deny Marshall use of the facility until he hired black players.

The team's first round draft choice, Ernie Davies, outright refused to play for Marshall (his exact words, according to the Redskins Encyclopedia, were, "I won't play for that S.O.B.") and was quickly traded to Cleveland for Leroy Jackson and Bobby Mitchell.

In 1961, the United States government was willing to step in and create equal opportunity for African-American athletes, yet in 2012, no one in the franchise or the NFL has the courage or common decency to stop using this racist name that was installed by its racist founder.

Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich characterized the team of that era as "all-white losers."

It's easy for Americans to battle racism just so long as they have a stake in it.

Long-suffering fans welcomed the black players because it finally meant their hometown heroes would have a competitive chance against teams led by the likes of Jim Brown.

But what have Native Americans done for us? Why should we care about them, when they can't offer us anything? Instead, we're sharing with them the glory of our playing fields.

Don't they know we're honoring Native American heritage, regardless of if they see it that way? Obviously they don't, or Native groups wouldn't keep filing lawsuits trying to cancel the 1967 Redskins trademark on the basis it is a disparaging term.

Don't they know we funded polls to justify our use of our disparaging terms for them? What right do they have to disagree with us?

If the club is named after an animal, or a myth, or a tribe, makes no real difference. It's got nothing to do with them. It's all about you, and your self-interested games of play.  Sports fans possesses such deep emotional connections to teams in a recreational activity, yet cannot comprehend the deep emotional connections Indian people possess for aspects of their culture, history and lives.

Look again at Sanford High School alumni James Auger's self-interested comments: "No matter how you vote tonight, you are not taking away my Redskins (varsity sports) jacket or my yearbook."

Now read Donna Loring's previously mentioned comments to Indian Country Today, that people don't question accepting an insensitive mascot because it is "what they have been taught and what their parents have been taught. It's generations of thinking and not really understanding what Native people have not only suffered but accomplished."

Couple that indoctrination—that these images are innocuous—with the intense environment sporting events create.

In a past article, I wrote, "Whether by school or by city, the language of sports is a jingoism to protect one's turf, crush the opponents and seize the enemy's flag. It is war for the masses, without the mess.

"In much different eras, families would picnic on battlefield hillsides and watch actual, bloody war unfold. Those historical and today's sportive contests gave the everyday person a chance to own a victory in some aspect of life."

Combine these fervent forces (indoctrination and intense attachment to a team) in the psyche, and it is little wonder why Americans are so reticent to let go of these Native American mascots.

But it doesn't excuse the fact that we must.

Sanford High senior Michaela Dwyer said of the school's former mascot, "I think it's shameful. If just one person is offended, it is one too many."

The high school cheerleader sympathized and did something about it by speaking out. She was able to effect real world change while Daniel Snyder, billionaire head of the NFL's Redskins, sympathizes, but refuses to do anything.

I guess racism doesn't count when it is directed toward Native Americans.

They were supposed to go to their reservations and die while the rest of us got on with our country.

Fire water jokes gave way to casino jokes—even though games of chance have long been a part of Native American culture, and were even played at the first Thanksgiving, but who cares about any of that?

It is 2012. America has culturally exorcised the mammy rag off of Aunt Jemima's head, yet we abide Red-skin every football season.

Native American athletes such as Jim Thorpe helped make football a national institution and the league repays them in caricature. 

As long as the slur doesn't affect the NFL owners and the NFL players, their inaction demonstrates they don't care.

If they cared, if they were at all sensitive to other races' problems, then they would have done something about abolishing this racial signifier from the league a long time ago.

The continued revenue of advertisers such as Bank of America demonstrate those corporations don't care about promoting a pejorative term. Apparently, such banks and corporations are willing to pay big bucks to tell the world they endorse culturally insensitive names.

As long as Washington employs the racial signifier Redskins, there is always going to be controversy surrounding the team.  It is a blight from which the organization will never escape.

The reason for that can be summed up with a line from the film "Milk," where the title character tells the man who would later murder him, "It's more than an issue. This is our life we're fighting for."

The bottom line is, a race continues to be marginalized by a billion dollar industry and those who have the power to stop it don't. That includes the players, the owners, and even the fans, who, yesterday on this very website, vehemently defended that there's nothing wrong with the name because it's just a sports team and has no real bearing on life—all the while hailing to the Redskins and refusing to change this antiquated term. 

Well, the Washington franchise can't have it both ways.

The onus is now upon the players, the owners and the fans to banish this spectre that hangs over the team so that the focus can return to what fans assure is nothing but inoffensive, harmless sport.  Washington will never be free from the stigma of this hateful word until it is removed.

It falls upon the league and the fans to prove just how harmless and innocuous a sports team name really is, and change precious, outdated Redskins into something that won't bring the franchise—and more importantly, the actual American Indians—any further grief.

If the team, the owners and the fans truly want this controversy to abate, then they must do the only thing which will end it—retire the name.