Is the NFL racist?

What do Hillary Clinton, Drake and Mike the hitman fromBreaking Bad have in common? Very little, at first glance, but they have all recently found themselves embroiled in one of the biggest controversies to rock American sports in decades.

The new National Football League season kicks off this month when the Seattle Seahawks, the defending Super Bowl champions, host the Green Bay Packers. But the biggest storyline during pre-season hasn’t been about whether the Seahawks can win the legendary Vince Lombardi trophy again. Nor has it been about the number of lawsuits being brought by former stars over career-ending concussions. The biggest story in the NFL this summer has revolved around a word: Redskins.

“But this summer, the media in the capital had only one drama to focus on: the growing accusation that the word ‘redskins’ is a racial slur and that the team needs to change its name. And if the name is changed, it will impact not only the NFL, but basketball, baseball and college leagues as well.”

Washington, DC, is home to one of the NFL’s wealthiest and most recognised franchises. It’s a team that won three Super Bowls in the 1980s and early 1990s, but has fallen on hard times the past two decades. Play-off appearances, let alone trophies, have been few and far between for the Washington Redskins. The team’s recent history is littered with bungles on and off the field with many pointing fingers at the franchise’s billionaire businessman owner Dan Snyder. The team has a record of 104 wins to 136 defeats since he bought it in 1999 and has gone through eight head coaches in 14 seasons. Last term it finished with three wins, 13 defeats. Huge amounts of money were wasted in the early years of his regime on high-profile players past their prime, instead of building a team the traditional way – through the college draft.


But this summer, the media in the capital had only one drama to focus on: the growing accusation that the word ‘redskins’ is a racial slur and that the team needs to change its name. And if the name is changed, it will impact not only the NFL, but basketball, baseball and college leagues as well.

The Redskins: a very brief history

Washington’s team started out in Boston in 1932 and during its inaugural season was called the Braves. In its second season, the franchise’s owner George Preston Marshall renamed the team the Redskins and in 1937, relocated it to the nation’s capital. Marshall was a controversial figure. The Redskins were the last team in the NFL to draft a black player, with Marshall once famously declaring, “We’ll start signing negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” Teams in the main started to sign African-American players from the 1946 season, but Marshall refused until 1962, when he was given an ultimatum by the US government: sign a black player or lose the 30-year lease the Skins had on their stadium in DC. Ironically, the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1987 with Doug Williams at quarterback, the first black player at that position to ever lift the Vince Lombardi trophy.

The part of the team’s history that isn’t so clear-cut is the meaning of its name. Some claim it refers to the practice of Native Americans painting their faces red before going into battle. Others claim it refers to bloodied scalps of Indians taken by Americans. It’s suggested Marshall named the team the Redskins in honour of its first head coach, William Henry ‘Lone Star’ Deitz, who was a Sioux Indian. But even Deitz’s origins are clouded in mystery. Several historians claim Deitz, a German American, was sent to prison during World War I for draft dodging after falsely registering as an Indian. His birth certificate states he was born to white parents in 1884 but his lack of Indian heritage is something Redskins officials are quick to deny. As for the word itself, Indian language scholar Ives Goddard, a senior Linguist in the Department Of Anthropology, National Museum Of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, based in DC, claims ‘redskins’ was first used by Indians themselves and goes back as far as the 1700s.

An old word in a modern world


Regardless of who said it first, the word’s meaning is now under scrutiny in these politically correct, modern times. The past two years have been delicate ones for American sport. While much has been achieved to move away from the actions of dinosaurs like Marshall, racism still occasionally raises its ugly head. In 2013, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was filmed at a concert shouting, “I will fight every n****r here.” Cooper is white, although he still plays for the Eagles, several grovelling apologies later. In May of this year after Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was taped telling his alleged mistress V Stiviano not to bring black guests to games. Sterling was banned from the NBA for life.

The Redskins situation though isn’t as clear-cut. This isn’t about one person pressing a self-destruct button: this is 80 years of history, plus the small matter of money – the NFL and the Dan Snyder’s Redskins make a considerable pile of dollars from the team’s logo and name.

The case for the name

It’s a name that Snyder is determined to keep. “We’ll never change the name,” he said back in May 2013. “It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.” And as calls for change have grown, the team has tried every way possible to go on the offensive and defend its heritage.

“On that inaugural Redskins team, four players and our head coach were Native Americans. The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of
honour,” said Snyder in a letter to fans in October 2013. “In 1971, our legendary coach, the late George Allen, consulted with the Red Cloud Athletic Fund located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and designed our emblem on the Redskins helmets. Several years later, the Red Cloud Athletic Fund honoured Coach Allen. Washington Redskins is more than a name we have called our football team for over eight decades. It is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect – the same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the original Americans.”

Just last month, Snyder went on ESPN, this time with his wife Tanya, to defend the name. “We sing ‘Hail to the Redskins’,” he noted. “We don’t say hurt anybody.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has called the name, “a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect,” and another defender is Joe Gibbs. He’s the former head coach who led Washington to its three Super Bowl wins and has coached the franchise in two spells. “The whole time I was there – 15 years – never once did I hear anybody say anything negative about the name Redskins,” said Gibbs. “Everything – everything – about that name has been positive for me and my past.”

The Redskins organisation regularly points to polls that state that the majority of people don’t believe the name is racist. A December 2013 poll conducted by the Public Policy Polling suggested 71 per cent of Americans don’t want the name changed, 18 per cent supported a name change, while 11 per cent were undecided.

Snyder has even tried to appease the critics by launching the Original Americans Foundation to help improve the lives of Native Americans and its first act was to
distribute 3,000 cold-weather coats and shoes to several tribes. “The official poverty rate on reservations is 29 per cent,” sad Snyder in another open letter to the NFL and Redskins fans. “Rampant diabetes, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, and heightened suicide rates afflict Native American youth, adults, and veterans. Life expectancies in high poverty Native American communities are the lowest anywhere in the Western Hemisphere – except for Haiti. It is heart wrenching. It’s not enough to celebrate the values and heritage of Native Americans. We must do more.”

Joe Theismann, the team’s Super Bowl winning quarterback in 1982, is also a defender of the name but has another theory why politicians such as Hillary Clinton are getting involved now. “It’s an election year.”

The case against


But with each passing month, the list of disgruntled names keeps growing. Clinton called the name “insensitive” and said it should be changed. Rapper Drake was more blunt: “I just want to stress that there’s no room for racism in the NFL, unless you own a team in Washington, DC. Then it’s a go,” he quipped.

Breaking Bad actor Jonathan Banks, a DC native and Redskins fan, took a more logical route: “We gotta change the name, dude. Even if there are two American Indians out there that don’t want to be called Redskins. Just change the name. If somebody’s offended by it, then change it.” Other political heavyweights, celebrities, current and past NFL players and coaches have had their say and concern has reached the highest levels of power, including President Obama. “If I knew the name of my team, even if it had a storied history, was offending a sizeable group of people,” he said, “I’d think about changing it.”

George Marshall’s granddaughter has also declared it’s time to ditch the word and around 50 members of the US Congress started to apply pressure this year, by sending a letter to the NFL yet again demanding change.

Washington travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings on November 2, a franchise that is currently playing its games at the University Of Minnesota’s stadium. The university president, Eric W Kaler, wants to ban using the nickname on all promotional and game material. But even if the Vikings also wanted to (there is a large Native American population in the city), they’re not allowed to omit any team’s branding under NFL rules.

A racial slur

One of Washington’s most famous newspapers, The Post, has been extremely vocal in its calls for a change, especially from columnist Mike Wise. A former New York Times reporter, he’s been covering the Redskins for The Post since 2004. “Tens of thousands of Native Americans have said it’s a slur. It doesn’t matter if you find another 10,000 who say it’s not,” says Wise. “Some say it’s a binary issue because some Indians like it, but the N word is a binary issue in America. Rappers like Jay Z use it, but most civil rights leaders and African American organisations in this country have called for the abolition of the word, as they know it was the last thing a black man heard when he was hung in the south. If you ask me who I’m going to side with, a rapper or a civil rights leader, I’m going to side with the latter. And this is how I feel about the team name in Washington.”

Wise, who has been visiting Indian reservations since 2007, believes Snyder’s resistance over this issue is also part of the problem. “He is like your most stubborn uncle. There are people in this world who hear what they want to hear, and those who hear what they need to hear. Snyder has always kept people around him who tell him what he wants to hear. I think he feels it’s a leftist conspiracy. I do though believe he’s never said the name with malice.”

The Native American view

Most importantly, many Indian groups have also stressed they feel the word is racist, including the Oneida Indian Nation and the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. The latter went as far as recording a commercial shown in seven major US cities during 2014’s NBA finals, with a simple, final closing tagline: “change the name”. The franchise responded this August with its own advertisement starring Native Americans who want to keep the name.

One good thing to come out of all of this, according to Wise, is it has got tribes talking to each other again. “There’s real agitation going on in Indian country about what the name means. Tribal leaders are talking for the first time about what the name means. They don’t want to be stereotypes and caricatures anymore.”

While some Indians have welcomed Snyder’s new Origins foundation, others have seen it as something more cynical, as a white man trying to buy their silence. Many took to Twitter to express anger, using the hashtag #NotYourMascot. “We’re glad that after a decade of owning the Washington team, Mr Snyder finally says he is interested in Native American heritage, but this doesn’t change the fact that he needs to stand on the right side of history and change his team’s name,” said Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter. But even Halbritter, who was granted an audience with the UN back in January to discuss the team’s name, has come under fire since the row began. Critics claim he is a fraud and is using the controversy for his own political gains. New York state assemblywoman Claudia Tenney has described it as “arrogance before the fall,” and has questioned his Indian heritage and filed motions in federal court challenging his status as Oneida leader. The tribe has called the claims, “Absurd, insulting,” and “racist”.

When good PR Goes Bad

The Foundation isn’t the only time the team’s efforts to defend the word have backfired. In May 2013, the franchise’s TV channel, Redskins Nation, had a special guest: Chief Dodson, introduced as “a full-blooded American Inuit chief originally from the Aleutian Tribes of Alaska, who represents more than 700 remaining tribe members.” But it didn’t take long before holes appeared in history. The Indian County Today newspaper ran a story with quotes from a relative suggesting Dodson wasn’t quite the authority he’d made out he was. Dodson’s sister also admitted he isn’t actually an Indian chief. “Somebody made a mistake and called him [Chief]. The Redskins went full steam ahead with it. They didn’t check it because it was helping them,” she said.

In May 2014, the team launched the hastag #RedskinsPride in reply to Democrat Senator Harry Reid, one of those 50 senators who sent a protest letter to the NFL and the Redskins. It quickly became a PR disaster, as the hastag was swamped by those demanding change: “The #RedskinsPride hashtag is used by white guys to defend millionaires using a racial slur,” said one. “The ultimate in irony has been reached.” The only person it benefited was Senator Reid. “It made our day,” said his office.

The controversy hasn’t been without moments of unintentional comedy though. The Redskins hired a blogger to defend the name, only for him to quit after two weeks. Meanwhile, a fugitive wanted on drugs and driving under the influence offenses gave his thoughts on the name change (his verdict? Keep the name, change the logo to a red potato) to a Pennsylvania college newspaper. Local authorities spotted his photo and he was thrown in jail.

How much?         

Like most things in modern sport, it comes down to money. Some experts do not think it will cost Snyder that much to rebrand the team. Some go as far as predicting he’d make money from it. The team is worth an estimated $1.7 billion, according to Forbes, but US consultancy firm Landor Associates (the company that worked with the NFL in 2008 to create a new league logo) believes a new name and logo would only cost between $20 million and $30 million, although updating the stadium would cost considerably more. Some experts have claimed it could actually be a financial goldmine – there’s the prospect of new fans supporting the team (ones previously unwilling to because of the name) not to mention merchandise for supporters to spend their wages on.

But others aren’t so sure, including Ronald Goodstein, associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University. “How much would a name change cost? The answer is hundreds of millions of dollars.” Another potentially damaging blow came this June, when the US Patent And Trademark Office rescinded the team’s federal trademark protections, meaning anyone can legally make fake Redskins merchandise. The team can still make its own (and the current trademark stands during an appeal) but the potential loss of merchandise money could damage the franchise in the future.

The bigger picture

But it’s not just the name in DC that is under threat. The issue has sparked debate over other teams’ names and their mascots. The NFL is home to the Kansas City Chiefs, while baseball’s Atlanta Braves, and in particular the Cleveland Indians, have come under scrutiny. When it comes to the Redskins, the issue is mainly the word, but with Cleveland it’s as much to do with the mascot: Chief Wahoo is a cartoon, a caricature of an Indian, with a beaming grin. A group of Indians fans made the news for all the wrong reasons last year after showing up to a play-off game with their faces painted red and wearing feathered headdresses. The Post’s Wise is as equally forthright in view of Wahoo as he is about Washington’s name. “That’s the worst thing in professional sport. It’s awful. That logo doesn’t look like anyone I know,” he says. “People don’t dress like that anymore, and if they do it’s ceremonial and during religious ceremonies.”

Another group, the American Indian Education Center, has launched a lawsuit against the Indians and is demanding $9 billion, “based on a hundred years of
disparity, racism, exploitation and profiteering”, according to Robert Roche, the group’s director.Right now, it seems like a case of when, not if, Washington will change its name. Some pundits are predicting it’ll happen by the 2016 or 2017 seasons, but the matter now has gone beyond just the word: it could impact US sport as a whole, and has raised question about the country’s relationship with its Native American communities. But another group it affects, which has often been overlooked in this argument, is the fans, who are stuck waiting to find out if they can cheer on the Redskins, the Braves, the Warriors or whatever new name the team is given. “I feel many fans are caught in the crossfire,” says Wise. “But I am waiting for these people to put themselves in the shoes of the Native Americans who want the name gone and why. Until then, there will be no peace in the war over the name.”