On Thursday evening, Nov. 7, there will be a protest march from Franklin Avenue to the Metrodome. Hundreds of Twin Citians will protest against the Washington NFL franchise’s continued use of the name “Redskins,” which many, American Indians and non-Indians, see as a derogatory and racist slur.
Earlier this month President Obama weighed in on the growing controversy over the name of the football team representing the nation’s capital.
“If I were the owner of a team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” Obama told the Associated Press.
Perhaps even more influential than Obama’s comment, during the halftime of Sunday Night Football, on Oct. 13, sports announcer Bob Costas rebutted the idea that Indian monikers honored indigenous peoples: “‘Redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage, or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term,” Costas told NFL fans. “It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”
The use of American Indian names, mascots and symbols by professional sports teams has provoked debate over recent decades. Now the issue has flared up again, big time, in regard to the Washington NFL franchise. Daniel Snyder, the Jewish billionaire who owns the team, addressed the issue in an Oct. 9 letter to fans. The team “was, and continues to be, a badge of honor,” according to Snyder. “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.”
The problem is that many American Indians, real people who live on rural reservations and in urban areas, see the use of Indian names and symbols in the service of sports entertainment as demeaning. As a non-Indian who has been writing about American Indian issues — including the Indian sports mascots and symbols topic — for nearly 35 years, I know that many self-aware and educated Indians do not feel honored by these teams appropriating Indian names and images — Braves, Indians, Chiefs, Blackhawks, etc. With the use of these names comes ancillary fan behavior — faux-Indian chanting, the “tomahawk chop,” turkey feather headdresses, etc. — that real Indians find grossly offensive.
(Can Jewish World readers imagine a football team called the New Jersey Hebes, employing a cartoon image of a Hasidic rabbi, and with a puppet-head mascot, in a shtreimel, frock coat, with payes and tzitzit, cavorting along the sidelines? Would the ADL allow this for five seconds? And I would point out that some of the Indian cartoon images used in professional sports — notably the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo character — bring to mind the anti-Semitic caricatures that were a feature of the Nazi rag, Der Stürmer, in which Jews were depicted as rat-like, grotesquely misshapen characters.)
So who is being honored here?
Daniel Snyder, in his letter to the fans, referred to a poll from the “highly respected Annenberg Public Policy Center,” which found that 90 percent of “1,000 self-identified Native Americans from across the continental U.S.” did not see the Washington team name to be “offensive.”
On this point, one might wonder if the “self-identified Native Americans” surveyed are actually Indians — members of a federally recognized Indian tribe, or of actual Indian ancestry — or just non-Indians who were told at some point that they have a Cherokee princess for a great-great grandmother.
In fact, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which is comprised of tribal leaders from across the country, issued a 29-page report titled “Ending the Legacy of Racism in Sports and the Era of Harmful ‘Indian’ Sports Mascots.” You can find the entire report online. Anyone who thinks that this practice of using Indian names and mascots for fun and games is benign might learn a few things from the NACI report, which states: “The use of racist and derogatory ‘Indian’ sports mascots, logos, or symbols, is harmful and perpetuates negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples. Specifically, rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples. Efforts to end harmful ‘Indian’ mascots are rooted in an attempt to achieve social justice and racial equity across all parts of American society.”
The NCAI report takes off the gloves regarding the Washington NFL franchise, declaring that “the team’s legacy and history is an ugly one, rooted in racism and discrimination, including the origins of the team’s name. It is becoming more and more obvious that the team’s legacy on racial equality is to remain on the wrong side of history for as long as possible.”
Regarding the charge of racism, the NCAI report notes that in 1933, the year after the Washington football team adopted the “R” word for its name, “[George Preston Marshall, owner and president of the Washington NFL franchise] had established himself as a leader in bringing racial segregation to the business of football. It is well documented that Marshall supported, if not instigated, a ban of African American football players from NFL play, which successfully lasted 13 years till 1946, when the league reintegrated. This happened just one year before Jackie Robinson put on a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, integrating Major League Baseball in 1947.
The Washington football team was the last team to integrate in 1962, bitterly hanging on, and capitulated only after being forced to do so by the federal government and the Kennedy Administration.”
Getting back to the Nov. 7 football game at the Metrodome, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum sent a letter this week to the chair of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Authority, Gov. Mark Dayton, and other elected officials, asking that the upcoming football game not promote the offensive name of the Washington football team in the publicly funded Metrodome.
“The NFL and the owner of Washington’s football team have a right to free speech,” wrote McCollum. “Constitutional protections allow them to offend, degrade, and disparage any race, ethnic group, religion, or person of any sexual orientation with their private funds within private spaces. But the people of Minnesota do not have an obligation to open the doors of our public sports facility and allow a for-profit entity to display and promote their racial slur…. As responsible and committed Minnesota leaders, I would urge you to take action to ensure that on November 7th the Metrodome remains a public venue where all Minnesotans, especially Native Americans, can work, watch, and enjoy a Vikings football game without a hostile, degrading, and offensive racial slur inflicted upon them.”
American Jews, who have inherited a legacy that features scapegoating and repression in many lands over the generations, should be mindful of the offensive representations of American Indian culture by professional sports teams. Indians in this country have plenty of problems; being demeaned by professional sports teams is unnecessary. This remnant of racist history will disappear someday, the sooner the better.
— Mordecai Specktor / editor [at] ajwnews [dot] com
(American Jewish World 10.25.13)