An appropriate name for a sports team with a racist past

Some NFL officials are going to meet with Oneida Indian Nation representatives today over the continued use of the name Washington Redskins.

Efforts to force a name change may be paying off. The meetings were to be held in November but have been moved up as the long-simmering dispute over an offensive name begins to show flames.

“This is a defined term. It is derogatory, offensive and is a racial epithet,” Oneida CEO Ray Halbritter tells ESPN. “This is the word that was used when people were forced off their land at gunpoint when the motto was, ‘Kill the Indian, save the man.'”

The owner of the Redskins recently wrote an open letter to fans defending the name, insisting it represents “who we are and who we came from.”

That’s the problem. The Washington Redskins franchise is rooted in a racist past, and that’s leaving out the entire question of its name.

In 1961, for example, then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall warned team owner George Preston Marshall to hire a black player.  The Redskins were the only all-white team in the league. Marshall was one of three men who founded the National Football League.

“All the other teams we play have Negroes; does it matter which team has the Negroes?” he said.

Sportswriter Shirley Povich once wrote that the Redskins’ colors were “burgundy, gold and Caucasian.”

Marshall made his fortune in the laundry business, but he ended up owning TV and radio stations in the south and thought that hiring blacks on his football team would drive away advertisers and audiences.

“We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites,” he said.

Under pressure, especially from new commissioner Pete Rozelle, the Redskins eventually drafted their first black player — Ernie Davis. Davis, aware of the racist owner, demanded an immediate trade and got his wish.

When Marshall died in 1969, he reportedly left some money for the formation of a foundation with a restriction that it never be used for “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.” The clause got thrown out by a court and the foundation actually does some good these days for kids in the D.C. area.

A week from tomorrow, the Redskins will play the Vikings at the Metrodome and the agency that runs it has refused to get involved in the question of racism, turning aside requests the public address announcer and the scoreboard not use the name. They were concerned it would violate free speech rights.

A few newspapers, following the lead of the Star Tribune in the ’90s, aren’t so afraid. The San Francisco Chronicle, NBC reports today, has decided to drop the use of the name. The Star Tribune dropped its policy years ago.

It brings up the question of whether the proper way for journalists to confront racism is to merely pretend it’s not really there.

It’s really there.

  • TJ Swift

    Funny Marshall would make that comment about the Globetrotters.
    In the 1940’s, my grandparents were close with Abe and Sylvia Saperstein (founder of the Globetrotters), in fact, my granddad used to referee their games when they played around the Chicago area. (I inherited the post cards and letters Abe and Sylvia sent them from all over the world.)

    The Globetrotters started out as the “Savoy 5” (a reference to the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago). According to my granddad, Abe said he noticed that when the team played out in the sticks (in the mid 1920’s), people would come just to see black men. Abe decided to parlay that interest by giving the team a name that most people of the time related to black America: Harlem NY.
    The point being, Abe Saperstein used racism to the benefit of black men.
    Personally, I think it’s time the Redskins changed their name.

  • Starquest

    I’m not in a position to determine whether the name Redskins is racist; I frankly don’t care. If Native Americans find success in getting the team to change its name, more power to them.

    But you can’t tell me with a straight face that the name was chosen to “honor” Native Americans. It was chosen to intimidate other teams via the perceived mythological savagery of Indians. We have never honored Native Americans in this country. They’ve been abused and neglected from day one.

    So there are a couple things at play here, as I see them:

    (1) Some people (mostly conservatives) become absolutely livid when a minority group forces social change

    (2) The team and the NFL would spend boatloads of money changing the name

    • Bob Collins

      The thing is, teams change uniforms and logos all the time. For one reason: it forces fans to buy more merchandise. I would think changing the name and logo would actually make money for the team.

  • Mike Simpkins

    Thank you Bob for your last sentence. It says it all. The term “Redskins” is blatantly racist and demeaning in current society. It frankly doesn’t make a difference if the originators of the moniker had good intentions or not.

  • Kassie

    Related, I think this is a good time to remind everyone that dressing up as a Native American for Halloween is also racist. As is dressing up in black face, as a Mexican or as a Geisha. Culture not costume.

  • TRussell

    This post reminded me of the shameful legacy of the Red Sox being last to integrate with Pumpsie Green. With the Redskins’ origin in Boston, this is especially striking.

    The Red Sox play Game 6 tonight and the face of the Sox is from the Dominican Republic; it well exemplifies the progress that the team has made. Sadly, it took far longer than it should have, and was not going to happen as long as Tom Yawkey was the owner.

    • Maxine Shaw

      I can’t imagine how awesome the Red Sox could’ve been had Yawkley gotten his head out of his behind. Yawkley supposedly had a shot at both Jackie Robinson AND Willie Mays, and he passed on them both. Now THAT’S hatred.

  • jaime

    I respect that some people have strong affinities to their sports teams. But is changing a name/mascot such a big deal? Would you like them less if they were called something different? Is it the name you support or the sport itself and it’s players? When we have names that are highly offensive to large groups of people we need to have a respectful conversation. For all the reasons highlighted in the comments, this is more than just changing a name (which as Bob pointed out, happens all the time), it’s about really looking at what’s going on and getting to the root cause of why someone (owner, franchise) would be so obstinate.