It’s Official: ‘Redskins’ Is Racist, but Will the Team or NFL Listen?
In May 2013, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder was asked if he’d consider changing his team’s name. His reply left no room for interpretation: “We will never change the name of the team.”
The reporter followed up by referring to the then-ongoing federal trademark lawsuit, asking if a loss in court might cause him to change his mind. Snyder doubled down: “We’ll never change the name,” he said. “It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”
It’s easy to mount battlements and scream in all caps-based defiance when you think you’re going to win. Wednesday, Snyder lost, with a court of law telling him in no uncertain terms that his Churchillian defense was mounted in favor of a hateful, racist slur.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office determined that the Redskins’ name is “disparaging to Native Americans” in the case of Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc. As a result, it canceled six federal trademark registrations because “based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.”
As of this writing, Snyder hasn’t commented on the ruling, brushing off reporters and refusing to comment. Redskins Team President and General Manager Bruce Allen told Mark Maske of the Washington Post, “We’re fine. We’re fine,” and curtly responded to a request for an official statement with, ““When the statement comes out, you’ll get it.”
To be clear, the Redskins are not going to be changing their name any time soon. This just means that they no longer have the exclusive right to use the name on team- and league-approved merchandise, including t-shirts, uniforms, travel mugs, teddy bears, and even coffee tables. This isn’t the first time that the Redskins have been brought to court. In 1999, the Patent and Trademark Office also ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, though the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the decision in 2003, largely based on a technicality.
The stated rationale for keeping the name, aside from any financial losses that Snyder might incur in the lengthy process of cobbling together a new moniker, is laughable. Take Lanny Davis (please), who was hired by the team to help combat the anti-Redskins campaign—and, yes, Davis is the same DC insider that’s shilled for dictators and child molester-enabling schools alike—who stated in response to President Obama’s criticism of the team, “We do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group. The name “Washington Redskins” is 80 years old—it’s our history and legacy and tradition. We Redskins fans sing ‘hail to the Redskins’ every Sunday as an expression of honor not disparagement,” bald-facedly tugging at the at-times irrational heartstrings of fans.
Whether or not the team “intends” to disparage anyone, they are. Period. Davis’ spin is the same language that Snyder himself slung when announcing the creation of his poorly named charity, the Original Americans Foundation. “I’ve been encouraged by the thousands of fans across the country who support keeping the Redskins tradition alive,” Snyder claimed. “Most—by overwhelming majorities—find our name to be rooted in pride for our shared heritage and values.”
Try not to laugh when you notice what the acronym for said foundation is.
To date, the league has been steadfast in backing Snyder as well. During this year’s Super Bowl, Commissioner Roger Goodell too used outdated polls as a rhetorical cudgel (PDF), suggested that extensive usage over time should outweigh basic logic and the idea that it’s a term of respect, stating that, “This is the name of a football team, a football team that has had that name for 80 years and has presented the name in a way that has honored Native Americans. We recognize that there are some who don’t agree with the name and we have listened and respected them.
"But if you look at the numbers, including Native American communities, nine out of 10 supported the name. Eight out of 10 in the general American population would not like us to change the name.”
Yes, there are polls, including the ten-year old one that Goodell and others invariably cite (PDF) that show that the majority of Native Americans themselves don’t take offense to the name. For some reason, they fail to mention this much more recent study by Professor James Fenelon, which found that 67% of Native Americans felt that, “The Redskins team name is a racial or racist word and symbol.”
With regard to his capacity to listen to those who oppose the name, I’d recommend he read Esquire’s Baxter Holmes, a Native American that wrote about his attempts to hold on to his cultural heritage and the damage that Snyder’s stubbornness has wrought.
“Non-Natives will never quite understand how deep the term ‘redskins’ cuts into ancient wounds that have never quite healed, and maybe it’s not reasonable to expect them to. But every time Dan Snyder refuses to change his NFL team’s name, even with tribes paying for powerful ads in opposition like the one that recently aired during the NBA Finals, Snyder plunges a long, twisted blade into our hearts,” he wrote.
Holmes also added, “’Redskins’ is not just a twisted compliment, like ‘Savages,’ ‘Warriors,’ ‘Braves’ or ‘Red Men.’ It represents a trophy of war—the bloody scalp of a murdered Native American, slaughtered for money, the amount dependent on whether it was a man, woman or child.”
Take a moment to watch the video he mentions above. See if you still feel comfortable walking around in a Robert Griffin III jersey while donning warpaint.
Or, Goodell might heed the response by the plaintiff in the suit, Anna Blackhorse, who said today, “The team’s name is racist and derogatory. I’ve said it before and I will say it again—if people wouldn’t dare call a Native American a ‘redskin’ because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?”
Maybe Snyder, Goodell and others even have the stones to talk about ‘dignity’ when face to face with an actual Native American. Ask this guy how that went.
But today’s ruling by the panel obliterates that part of the argument, leaving only ham-fisted appeals to nostalgic sentimentality on the part of non-Native American fans. The term “Redskins” is an ethnic slur.
If your counter is to claim is to invoke a slippery slope, or fret that politically correct, jackbooted thugs are going to target the Boston Celtics or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish next, my response would be that one, there’s nothing inherently derogatory about calling someone “Irish” or a “Celtic,” especially in a city with a history like Boston with a history that’s deeply intertwined with Irish immigrants. But if there’s an Irish-American group out there that has taken offense, well then, it’s certainly worth hearing them out.
And regardless of one’s personal political outlook, the point here is that if you are going to use an ethnic group for a sports team, whether the name is hateful or not, it should be reserved for the group itself, not Daniel Snyder.
Recently, the Florida State Seminoles, worked with tribal leaders to attain a waiver from the NCAA’s 2005 ruling that Native American mascots are “hostile and offensive.” And yes, there’s a world of difference between using the name of a tribe and the term “Redskins,” which is akin to the Knicks suddenly deciding to rebrand themselves as the “New York Kikes or Harlem N-Words.”
Snyder will undoubtedly dig in his heels and begin an appeals process that could drag out for years to come, especially given that the trademark would be upheld until there is a final determination and because…well…he’s Daniel Snyder.
That said, one factor that might cause him to eventually change his mind, is (should he lose), as was the case with the NBA’s decision to boot Donald Sterling, it wasn’t just about the horrid, bigoted statements he made as much as it was the looming, real threat of the loss of income.
Merchandise sales in the NFL are divided equally amongst the 32 teams. If Washington eventually loses their appeal and the trademark is permanently revoked, it means that they’ll all see a drop in sweet, sweet merchandising dollars. The threat of hordes of giddy entrepreneurs cranking out logo-embossed gear might be enough, since basic human decency hasn’t moved the needle, to get the powers-that-be to give Snyder a nudge in the right direction.
To paraphrase Homer Simpson: “Money! The cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.”