Is the name Redskins Offensive? First Consider the Source

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(re-post from November 2013, as the Redskins potentially changing their team name controversy heats up again)

During halftime of the Cowboys-Redskins game, NBC Analyst and Broadcaster Bob Costas offered his candid view of the nickname controversy.

“There is no reason to believe that owner Daniel Snyder, or any official or player from his team, harbors animus toward Native Americans or wishes to disrespect them. This is undoubtedly also true of the vast majority of those who don’t think twice about the longstanding moniker. And in fact, as best can be determined, even a majority of Native Americans say they are not offended,” Costas said.

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If you are one of the many in this nation who are considering whether or not the Redskins nickname and its corresponding symbol are indeed offensive, you must first start by considering the source.

Perhaps, Washington Redskins founder George Preston Marshall meant no offense when he named his professional football team. However, when you look at who he was and where he stood on the ideas of racial equality, tolerance and social justice, it’s very hard to believe that.

“For 24 years Marshall was identified as the leading racist in the NFL,” the late university professor Charles Ross famously stated.

Marshall was born in West Virginia in 1896, just 19 years after Civil War reconstruction of The South was officially completed. At the age of 36, he founded the Washington Redskins, which he first named the Boston Braves in 1932.

Marshall went out of his way to make his team The South’s favorite squad, stocking it with players and practices that appealed to the states residing within the Old Confederacy. Marshall’s primary intentions were more likely economic than sociopolitical, as the Redskins were actually the southernmost team in the National Football league at the time.

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The marketing plan and financial interests held by Marshall dictated appealing to Southern audiences and Southern television markets. Southern football fans were fully on-board with Jim Crow during this time period. Many members of Marshall’s target audience were relics of the antebellum, who just believed in segregation as the status quo; they prized both de jure segregation and de facto segregation.

And even the football team’s beloved fight song, the iconic “Hail to the Redskins,” was mixed with a little Southern Gumbo.

The lyrics were written by Marshall and his wife, with the music taken from the Bible Belt favorite, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” The song’s original first stanza ended with the line “Fight for old Dixie.” This line was only used from 1959 to 1961, as a glance at contemporary game day programs will verify. Each of these programs printed the lyrics, and “Old D.C.” replaces “Old Dixie” in all years except 1959 through 1961. The original version of the song also closed to the famous opening of the well-known southern folk song, “Dixie.”

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The original lyrics to “Hail to the Redskins” were written with the intention of reflecting the Native-American warrior imagery of the team. The lyrics were later rewritten to be less offensive to contemporary standards. The team name could also be updated to reflect current ways of thinking. If the fight song is subject to change, then the team name should be as well. Past is prologue.

While the rest of the National Football League began signing individual African-Americans in 1946 and actually drafting black players in 1949, Marshall held out all the way until 1962. Marshall refused to sign African-American players because of both his desire to appeal to certain markets and because of his personal political views.

Marshall’s stubbornness on this policy was routinely mocked in Washington Post columns by legendary sportswriter Shirley Povich, who sarcastically used terms from the civil rights movement and related court cases surrounding the struggle in his columns on football games. For instance, Povich once wrote that Jim Brown “integrated” the end zone, making the score “separate but unequal.”

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Marshall’s archaic steadfast stand in the face of enormous social pressure to change is similar to the behavior of current Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.

“We’ll never change the name,” Snyder told USA Today. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

And if you can use ALL CAPS, it means he’s SERIOUS. Because he’s YELLING AT YOU.

Marshall once infamously said something similarly resolute: “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”

Again, past is prologue.

Only the threat of losing his stadium moved Marshall to finally integrate.

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In 1962, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy issued an ultimatum — unless Marshall signed a black player, the government would revoke the team’s 30-year lease on the year-old D.C. Stadium (now Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium), which had been paid for by government money and was owned by the Washington city government. The local government still owns the stadium today.

After the NAACP picketed the stadium, Udall decided that he would boycott the team as long as the demonstrations occurred outside football games.
Just as they are today, the Redskins were a privately owned interest, but the public interest became strong enough to force them into evolving. The government put their foot down and the ‘Skins eventually had to move onto the right side of history. Whether Marshall actually wanted to or not.

Marshall responded by making Ernie Davis, Syracuse’s all-American running back and inspiration for the Disney biopic “The Express,” his number-one draft choice in 1962. Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner, demanded a trade, saying, “I won’t play for that S.O.B.”

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He got his wish, as the team sent him to Cleveland for All-Pro Bobby Mitchell. Mitchell was the first African American football player to play a game for the Redskins, and he played with the team for several years, having a career of such distinction that he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
To this day, Mitchell has not made vocal a strong position for or against the Redskins moniker.

To put the Redskins integration into proper historical context, George Wallace’s infamous segregationist rallying cry came just one year later. Wallace delivered his Inaugural address as Governor of Alabama on January 14, 1963. His phrase: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” became a mantra for those opposed to integration and the Civil Rights Movement. Wallace would later in life apologize for his unabashed racism and segregationist policies.

George Preston Marshall never did.

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In 1964, the Voting Rights Act was passed, a crowning achievement in the battle for Civil Rights. The passage of the law was so deeply unpopular in The South, Marshall’s target audience, that President Lyndon B. Johnson said of enacting the legislation: “I fear we (the Democratic Party) have lost The South for the next 50 years.”

Many members of the national media have vowed to never use the word Redskins again. Their ranks include writers from outlets such as: Buffalo News, Philadelphia Daily, Slate, New Republic, Mother Jones, ESPN, Grantland, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and CBS Chicago.

Other outlets, like the New York Daily News, Deadspin, Washington Post and the NFL on NBC have featured individual voices repeatedly speaking out as strongly against the name.

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There’s never been this bright a spotlight on the potential offensiveness of the Redskins nickname. The last time it was a big national topic of discussion was when the ‘Skins were last in the Super Bowl—21 years ago. There were large protests from the American Indian Movement, a civil rights group, and the University of Minnesota outside the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

But, you didn’t have the leader of the free world weighing on the issue back then. President Barack Obama has very recently said that Snyder should think about changing the name. Obama said that he wasn’t convinced attachment to a particular name, or even a storied history complementing that attachment, should override the real legitimate concerns that people have.

You also didn’t have the Commissioner of the NFL, in this case Roger Goodell, softening his stance, and backing away from Snyder. Goodell will reconsider the issue, and he’s the one in charge of the multi-billion dollar empire that is the NFL, so his opinion counts as much as anyone. He said that if just one person is offended, yes just one, then the name must be reconsidered.

Yet another powerful voice seeking a name change is former Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy. The Super Bowl winning Coach is currently an analyst for the NFL on NBC.

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“I went on record on the show saying that they should change their name,” Dungy said by phone.

“I don’t think you sit up there and say, ‘I’m not offended by something, so it shouldn’t offend anybody else.’ I would look at it and say, ‘Hey, we may be offending someone. There’s no need to in this day and age to offend anyone.’

Snyder will eventually have to change the name once the groundswell of opposition becomes strong enough to make it a distraction hindering the performance of the football team on the field.

Once the Redskins change their name to something non-offensive, the conversation can get back to football and it would benefit everybody involved.

“I know there’s a long tradition with that name, but I think they should change it and then we could get back to just talking about football,” said Dungy.

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Dungy brought up tradition and that’s one of the two words Snyder often uses to defend his vehement position to never change the moniker. The other word Snyder uses is history. That tradition dates back 81 years, but it’s rooted in George Preston Marshall. Therefore, it has roots in segregation and intolerance. The Redskins do indeed have history, being on the wrong side of it.

An Oneida Nation Symposium was held this month in Washington, and the rise of the Nation’s political voice is a major reason this issue is getting more traction than ever before. With additional money and influence, they now have the resources to buy extensive publicity. Oneida Nation spokesperson and leading figure Ray Halbritter even recently appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press.

The next tangible event which could influence a name change will occur on November 22nd. There will be a meeting between the NFL and the Oneida Indian Nation on that date, but efforts are underway to accelerate that meeting.

In 1987, Doug Williams, of these same exact Washington Redskins, became the first African-American to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. Obviously this would not have been possible, had RFK and Udall not forced Marshall into integrating 25 years earlier.
So although it was against his will, the eventual change in policy led directly to a benefit for the organization Marshall owned. Similarly, Snyder will likely not change his policy unless exterior pressure forces his hand.

Snyder and the retain the name at all costs camp believe that changing the mascot will severely damage the brand and personally cost him tens of millions of dollars.

But how can they be so sure?

A team name is nothing but a brand; a logo and a nickname. Perhaps a new brand could be better for the Washington football team down the line. Maybe the new name would make the team even more popular and lucrative. Government pressure and public interest led to Marshall reluctantly doing the right thing. And his team was rewarded for doing so.

Commercial pressure and private interest (perhaps from Goodell and the NFL itself) could force Snyder’s hand. And although Snyder believes the complete opposite right now, name change could reward the team down the line.

Past is prologue.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly contributes to WGN TVSports IllustratedChicago Now and SB Nation.

You can follow Banks, a former writer for Chicago Tribune.comon Twitter and his cat on Instagram.

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Comments

  1. What a Cornucopia of Crap!

  2. In the America we live in today “Socialism”
    (a term now used by anyone who wants to change anything they don’t agree with) is used by anyone with a personal agenda !

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