Last month, the Oneida Indian Nation launched a “Change the Mascot” campaign aimed to rename the Washington, D.C.-based football team, the Washington Redskins. Though it might appear to be of little consequence, the debate over a sports team’s name is not a trivial matter. The routine use of racial slurs, such as “redskin,” is inappropriate and must be taken seriously. As Ray Halbritter, an Oneida Nation representative, told ABC News, “Sports and politics have a really important intersection. Symbolism really matters.”
Though other sports teams such as the Cleveland Indians, have discriminatory names, the Washington Redskins is the worst offender. Not only is “redskin” a racial slur toward Native Americans, but the term can also refer to the practice of scalping Native Americans in battle. According to David Grosso, a Washington, D.C. councilmember, the term “redskin” carries the same weight as the n-word. Aside from its vulgar nature, this term also carries colonialist and imperialist tones. As an alternative, Grosso proposed changing the teams’ name to the Redtails, a nod to the region’s population of redtail hawks.
The debate over the Washington Redskins is a pressing issue, which has even elicited a statement from President Barack Obama.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Obama said, “I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.” He does not take a decisive enough stance on the issue.
This wavering stance opened up a loophole for the Redskins’ team lawyer, Lanny Davis, to defend the name on the basis of “legacy and tradition.” Yet, this justification should not be a legitimate factor in determining whether to change the team’s name. Racial slurs cannot become normalized in society and media; naming a team after an offensive word does not make it any less harmful. Furthermore, Halbritter noted that this “legacy and tradition” unfairly portrays the Native American as a “historic relic or mascot.” In a statement to CNN, he added, “No matter what the history of something is, if it’s offending people, then it’s time to change it.”
Kevin Gover, head of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, pinpoints the problematic nature of the Native American-derived sports mascots: “A good many Americans don’t know any Indians … The petty stereotype has become expected.” In USA Today, Gover adds that Native American derived-team names are especially offensive because they incorrectly portray Native Americans as outsiders instead of the original settlers. He takes issue with the stereotypical, 19th century depiction of Native Americans and suggests changing the name to the Washington Americans and modernizing the mascot.
Yet this approach fails to address the issue of belittling a race of people into a sports team mascot. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a mascot is “a person, animal or object adopted by a group as a symbolic figure especially to bring them luck.” Even though the dictionary definition concedes that a mascot can be a person, there are few other races represented in sports teams’ mascots. Instead, the vast majority of mascots are animals, such as the Miami Dolphins or the Arizona Cardinals. The mascot’s emphasis on the negative characteristics of Native Americans, also, is equally troubling.
In addition, the exaggerated cartoons and fan rituals that accompany the mascots add further insult. For example, the Washington Redskins’ Chief Zee disrespects Native American culture by trailing eagle feathers on the ground and the Atlanta Braves’ “tomahawk chop” trivializes and brutalizes the Native American culture.
Though NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell seemed open to discussing a name change, the Redskins’ owner, Daniel Snyder, takes an inconsiderate approach to the matter. In an interview with ABC News, Snyder remarked, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” According to ABC News, 80 percent of area residents would not care if the team changed its name. With this statistic in mind, Snyder has everything to gain by revoking the offensive name and logo.
Racial generalizations, such as the term “redskin,” desensitize people and make them erroneously believe that this type of subtle discrimination is an acceptable social norm. In order to promote respect and dignity for all Americans, Snyder should rename the team.
Veronica An is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies.
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