This past week I was able to enjoy with family and friends one of my most cherished holidays in Thanksgiving. Traditions give Thanksgiving special meaning from the gathering of family, the fall weather, the amazing food and sitting on the couch watching a plethora of NFL football.
Football is an important part of the Thanksgiving holiday and serves as a microcosm of the significance of the sport as a tradition and culture in America.
Tradition is crucial to the success of the NFL and football in American culture and has a special meaning to me. There may be nothing that fascinates me more than the history of the NFL.
That is why I understand the passion Washington Redskins fans have when defending their team name, but at the same time, I still find the name to have a background of negativity and racism.
The team itself and the genesis of the ‘Redskins’ name may have had the most positive intentions, but that does not allow the term ‘Redskins’ to be completely redefined and the people who defend the name to ignore its original connotation.
The origin of ‘Redskin’
The term ‘Redskin’ was a word used in the 18th and 19th century by white English speaking Americans to identity indigenous peoples, or more commonly known as Native Americans. Although the origin of the word is widely debated and ambiguous, there is an acceptance that the word ‘Redskin’ has some negative association attached to it.
In Bruce Stapleton’s “Redskins: Racial Slur or Symbol of Success?,” he found that linguistic analyses claim American books published between 1875 and 1930 used the term ‘Redskin’ in a negative context, associating the term with lying and filth.
In 1863, The Daily Republican a former daily paper in Winona, Minn., published a reward for dead Native Americans offering “$200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory.” Even many western movies cite the term ‘Redskin’ in association with Native Americans being primitive.
The fact is the term ‘Redskin’ is a provocative word that has a history as a racial slur and is avoided being used in contemporary American English for that very reason. The only exception of the word’s use is in reference to a sports team, but I ask why does that exception even exist? The answer you will find is because of tradition.
A tradition of ignorance
In an open letter to fans, Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, emphatically defends the Redskins name. Snyder cites his first experience going to a Redskins game as a child and the positive energy directed towards the team name and long lasting tradition of the Redskins name.
“We cannot ignore our 81 year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country. After 81 years, the team name ‘Redskins’ continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are and who we want to be in the years to come,” states Snyder.
Despite the 81 years of tradition, Snyder seems to ignore there was a history of the word before it became the name of a football team, in which the word was used in an incredibly negative and offensive identification of Native Americans.
If Snyder wants to go back to the origin of the Washington Redskins name 81 years ago, it should be noted that the then owner George Preston Marshall, a well-known racist, was the one who made the decision to change the name from Braves to Redskins.
While most of the NFL began integrating African American players onto their teams in 1949, the Redskins under Marshall would not integrate until 1962 when U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy gave Marshall an ultimatum- integrate or the government will revoke the Redskins’ 30-year lease on the newly built D.C. Stadium, which is now called Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.
Marshall was once famously quoted “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” I find it hard to believe Marshall was being sensitive when he decided to change the name of his franchise to the Redskins. Then again, rich white businessmen didn’t have to answer to anyone in the 1930’s and had the power to redefine words.
For 81 years, the Washington Redskins name has carved out acceptance in our society, while the identification of a Native American as a redskin has become completely inappropriate.
What Snyder and supporters of the Redskin name have attempted to do is detach the term ‘Redskin’ from the Washington Redskins, which is impossible considering they are same word. As long as the Washington Redskins are named as such, there will be controversy.
The reality for the Redskins
An instance in when I realized the name Redskin was innately wrong was when my seven year old brother was watching a football game with me and asked what a Redskin was. I had to explain to him that it was a different name for Native Americans, but that he couldn’t actually call or refer to Native Americans as a Redskin. He then looked at me perplexed and couldn’t wrap his head around it. “That’s confusing,’ he said. To my brother Grayson, yes I agree, it is incredibly confusing as to why the name is accepted.
I was once told, in reference to abolishing hazing in fraternities, if the only reason for a tradition existing is because it is tradition, then maybe it shouldn’t be a tradition anymore or at least extensively re-evaluated.
The Redskins name needs to be re-evaluated through a lens that is not just the past 81 years but the entire meaning and origin of the word.
There needs to be a realization that if you can’t walk into a group of people and identify them with a certain word then maybe that word shouldn’t be used to identity a football team.
While Snyder refuses to accept there is more than just 81 years of tradition of the Redskin name, he is going to have accept that his team won’t be playing in the District of Columbia anytime soon.
Currently, FedEx Field is located in Landover, Md., but there are currently inquiries to move the team back to D.C. In addition to the City Council passing a resolution urging the Washington Redskins to change their name, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray had comments about the name change during a press conference.
“I think that if [the Redskins] get serious with the team coming back to Washington, there’s no doubt there’s going to have to be a discussion about that,” said Gray.
If Snyder doesn’t open up to that discussion, he is going to have to get used to another tradition: Playing in a city that doesn’t actually represent the city his team is named after; then again he seems perfectly fine with other misrepresentations.