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The Washington Redskins, Unshakable Controversy, and How to Consider a Change

In a new wave of mascot controversy, three modes of evaluating the conflict present themselves: memorial, monetary, and moral.

Protest against Washington football team name by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC by 2.0

The Washington Redskins, Unshakable Controversy, and How to Consider a Change


Estimated Reading Time: 8 Minutes
No Honor in Racism by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC by 2.0

Once again, fans, investors, and owners find themselves in debate and discomfort over mascots depicting Native American iconography and caricature. This decades-long conversation seems, today, to be centered around the Washington Redskins, though is familiar to fans in Cleveland, Kansas City, and Tallahassee to be sure. 

Adweek reports, “Three separate letters signed by 87 investment firms and shareholders worth a collective $620 billion asked Nike, FedEx, and PepsiCo to terminate their business relationships with the NFL’s Washington Redskins unless the team agrees to change its controversial name.”

It seems futile to spend my time telling you what to think about the subject of the franchise’s name change. I do hope, however, to offer how to think about the subject. 

It seems to me that personal investment in the conversation, be it for an individual football fan or an internal executive, comes down to three modes of evaluation: memorial, monetary, and moral. 

Memorial

The first and most popular objective from any institution to changing a controversial name is connection to the past. The generational affinity and loyalty a fan may feel to your name seems tantamount to your history itself. This objection both underestimates fans and overestimates moral absolutism. 

While tragic to lose the use of your vintage 70’s bomber jackets, the way teams present themselves is more in flux than we realize. Whether it be the inane style choice of the Oregon Ducks or the now-forgotten navy and gold of the Titans of New York (today the Kelly-green Jets), fans are not so easily ostracized as we might imagine. Moreover, time renders these decisions hazy and benign with the benefit of distance. 

If fandom is astute enough to track a team to a new city (as is the rapid-fire trend in California these days), they can certainly adapt to a new name at home. The Oilers played in Tennessee for multiple seasons before rebranding as the Titans. All resentment was washed away with the swift advent of a stunning 1999 post-season, suggesting that a (winning) rose by any other name, indeed, smells just as sweet. 

To imply that fans can adapt to a franchise change is not to insult the love they have felt for the team throughout the years, it is to acknowledge that these leagues and organizations exist beyond our present moment.  

Consider as you look back on what you have loved, that equal value ought to be placed on looking forward. 

Generations after you will love this team even by another name. This feels obvious to me, a woman, who may change my last name in marriage one day. I fully expect to wake up the next morning as myself. I fully expect to be loved for my character regardless of my name. 

Male fandom may not be socialized to expect this for themselves but they may be for a spouse. If you love your team more or less than your wife, only you can say, but the capacity to maintain loyalty despite a change in name is apparent- and in some cases, indeed because of it. 

Monetary

Adam Smith’s theory of the Invisible Hand of the market seems to be in full effect in this instance, though made somewhat more visible with tweets and gramable memes. 

We are told to believe that the free market will regulate itself. Supply, demand, trends, culture- it all comes together to dictate the economy we ought to have. 

We run into trouble in the NFL, however, with teams that look less like publicly traded goods and more like kingdoms. Majority owner Dan Snyder told USA TODAY in 2013, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER- you can use caps.”

This resistance is in some ways decree and in some, deterrent. With an uncompliant owner, where’s the benefit in belaboring the conversation? Snyder, while obstinate, is presumably not an idiot. At some point, the sour taste of humble pie will be worth preserving advertising revenue and merchandise sales. When people are truly unwilling to be seen with their logo, the tide might turn.

This question is less of good intentions on the part of corporate partners, and more one of follow-through. With a significant hold on the D.C. market, are advertisers willing to lose visibility? Economic pressure can come from altruistic advertisers or from a groundswell of fan engagement, but to incentivize change at the top, it likely must come from both. 

Moral

There is another group, of course, that has a vested stake in a team and its character: the players, coaches, and clubhouse staff that do the work week in and week out. 

In companies that have been previously apolitical like Facebook, crises of conscious have motivated employees to take stands that are insufferable to executives. To see a similar coup played out by a team’s personnel would come at great personal cost to them, but in a national moment of bold stands, we should not think it impossible. 

Moments of newfound unwavering conviction seem to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth for all us good people- moral absolutism is only as absolute as the times. 

In order to embrace change and growth, we must acknowledge that things have been done that, while normal and acceptable at the time, are now unconscionable. 

It’s the difference between the 3/5 Compromise and The Voting Rights Act. The difference between the Lavender Scare and Obergefell v. Hodges. It’s the difference between The Trail of Tears and eliminating dehumanizing portrayals of Native Americans. 

There are norms today that will inevitably be looked on by history with distaste and disgust. To assume impunity in this unfailing historical trend is to be unlike any other society in the millennia of humanity. We are not.

There are mistakes we are blind to. We can only hope to be afforded a measure of grace as we fail upward. We should not hope to receive this grace toward issues we see clearly. These are the undeniable responsibilities of our moment. 

Must We?

Does the name “Redskins” fall into this category? 

Historically, the American legacy is one of indigenous erasure. If the name doesn’t make you bristle, it’s not because it’s ok, it’s because we are expertly practiced at ignoring and defaming Native Americans. It is our longest standing tradition. 

So I’ve given too much away. That is what I think you should think about it. It’s how I check my own attitudes. I wonder if I can see clearly and no matter the answer, I ask who sees more clearly than me. 

On this subject, it’s the people effected, and I absolutely do not mean Dan Snyder. 

In an article for The Independent, writer Angelina Newsome, a member of the Northern Cheyenne, so clearly states,

“My tribe doesn’t identify as ‘redskins’ – this is a derogatory term coined by colonialists of historically used interchangeably with ‘savages’. We don’t need polls by newspapers to understand that racial slurs are offensive.”

Changing can mean admitting we’re wrong. It also means admitting we’re learning. The gift in revisiting this controversy today, right in this very moment, is that learning is very much on trend.

There is no better time to admit you were misguided but you’re trying. That you were stubborn but you’re growing. That you weren’t listening, but now you repeat the call.

When the Redskins were founded in the 1930’s, they went by a different name. They were known as the Braves. If loss of tradition is the greatest fear, I suggest this one as a perfect choice: once more, be brave.

For additional reading and resources, including statements from over 30 Tribes, prominent civil rights organizations, and respected sports leaders, please visit: https://www.changethemascot.org/supporters-of-change/

Angelica is an NYC based creative. She has performed in the national tours of Broadway musicals, written for ESPN.com, and teaches theater and dance in men's maximum security prisons. 2018 Broadway Show League Female MVP! Her loyalties stem from her roots, and remain with the 49ers, Giants, Sharks, and UCLA Bruins.

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