Politics

11.30.13

The ‘Tennessee Crackers’ Would Have Never Happened

No one would have dreamed of giving an NFL team a name insulting to white people, Catholics, or Jews. So why is ‘Redskins’ okay? One reason: Native Americans’ lack of political power.

WARNING: This column contains racially and ethnically offensive words and phrases. A lot of them. That’s the point, as you’ll see. I don’t go around using these words and phrases in real life and don’t think you should, either.

The other night I was settling in to watch a bit of the Washington football club versus the San Francisco 49ers. A thought occurred to me that I tweeted: If the Niners had been named in the same spirit in which the Redskins were named, they might be the San Francisco _____s.

In came the replies, some very witty ones. But while witty, they were also mostly pretty offensive. Fags, or some variant thereof, came up a lot. And this in turn got me thinking: What if every NFL team had been named in the spirit in which the Redskins were named? They were named, if you don’t know, by George Preston Marshall, the full-throttle racist who owned the team from the 1930s through the 1960s. He changed the name from Braves to Redskins because Braves wasn’t racist enough, and he moved the team from Boston to Washington because Boston wasn’t racist enough. He wanted to be the football lord of Dixie.

Doubt me? When he proposed to his wife, he hired some black singers to croon “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginny” while two black maids dressed in Gone With the Wind get-ups served them juleps in order to set the “proper” mood. And when he died in 1969—well after legal segregation had died—he instructed that the foundation to which he left much of his estate not direct a dollar toward “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.”

This year, the Washington team stinks. It’s mostly because of the awful defense. It’s partly because of the inconsistent play of the over-hyped Robert Griffin III, whose entire career was risked last year when his coach sent him out on the field in a playoff game with an injury that should have put him in the locker room. But I can’t help but see a little cosmic justice at work.

At any rate, what follows is a list of what some NFL teams’ names might be or might have been if Marshall had been permitted to name them. I couldn’t think of one for every team, and frankly I got a little sickened by the project after a while.

The Redskins’ first owner, George Prescott Marshall, changed the team’s name because ‘Braves’ wasn’t racist enough.

Dallas Cowboys: A racist doesn’t hate cowboys, but Marshall did have a special fight with Dallas over his team’s fight song. So here we might have had the Dallas Swindlers or Crooks.

New York Giants: This one’s pretty straightforward, I think. New York Jewboys.

Philadelphia Eagles: This franchise’s eagle comes from the logo of FDR’s National Recovery Administration. So it’s a New Deal nickname. Wouldn’t have sat too well with a reactionary crank like Marshall. Philadelphia Communists, or Soviets.

Green Bay Packers: The Packers got their name because of a company called the Indian Packing Company, located in Green Bay at the time. The founders went with Packers, but Marshall, given his Native-American fascination, would have gone in that direction, clearly. The Green Bay … what? Featherheads?

Chicago Bears: Bears founder George Halas was mittel-European, as were (and are) many Chicagoans. So, the Bohunks.

Since Marshall’s deepest hatred was of black people, a number of teams would have “earned” nicknames that derogate African Americans. The Arizona Cardinals, for example, are the legatees of the old Chicago Cardinals, which was the first team in the olden days, way back in the 1920s, to play black players. Then, in the early 1930s, blacks were banned. After the war, loud calls arose for the league to integrate. The St. Louis Rams used to be the Los Angeles Rams, and those Rams were the first NFL team to integrate, in 1946 (interestingly, the Rams had their eye on a former UCLA running back named Jackie Robinson to be their test case, but he chose baseball, the much bigger sport at the time). And the Cleveland Browns were the first team to integrate in what was then the other league, the AAFL. So all three of those might have been in the general Jungle-Bunny/Sambo family. Or worse.

What about the teams of the South? Let’s start with Atlanta, Carolina, and Tennessee. Marshall himself would have nary a cross word for Dixie of course. But if these teams had been named in the spirit in which Redskins were named, they might have been dubbed Rednecks, Crackers, Peckerwoods. Some other Southern teams represent special cases. New Orleans is heavily Catholic, so they might have ended up the Mackerel-Snappers or something along those lines, while the Miami appellation might have nodded in the direction of the large Cuban population—the Boat People, or maybe Island Beaners, to employ the lingua franca of the Sunshine State itself. And if Marshall had lived to name the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he’d have taken one look at that original logo, “Bucco Bruce” (yes—Bruce!), and dubbed them the Fags.

By the way, going back to my Twitter question, the submission from my tweeps that I found most Marshallesque had not to do with sexual identity but with Fog City’s earlier history of being the center for importation of Asian labor. The San Francisco Coolies, to minds like Marshalls, might have had a very fine ring to it indeed.

Okay, enough. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking that a lot of my hypothetical nicknames are just preposterous. No one would ever call a team Jewboys or Mackerel-Snappers. I quite agree, no one would.

But the question is this: Why would no one do that? Not simply because it’s offensive. Rather, because there exist in this country constituencies, Jews and Catholics respectively, who are in possession of enough political muscle to let everyone know that those two names would be offensive. The only reason we know Jewboy is offensive is that Jews have made sure the rest of us know.

Is the word Redskin somehow uniquely inoffensive among racial and ethnic slurs? Somehow uniquely all right? No. For God’s sakes, it refers to the skinning of Native Americans by 19th-century frontiersmen, who turned the hides in to local trading stations to collect bounties on them. The only thing that’s “unique” about that word is that Native Americans have been uniquely lacking in political power to make sure the rest of us know it’s offensive. But now we do know. Running out of excuses, Mr. Snyder.