A football team that (still) needs another name

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We’re in the third quarter on this one! Meaning that we seem to be getting closer to a name change for the Washington-area professional football team—and that this is the third year I’ve tracked our progress. Let’s take a look at name-related news from the past year ….

August 2014: News reports mention broadcasters who won’t say the team name on the air, including “two notable NFL analysts and former Super Bowl champions,” according to Yahoo News. “The controversy surrounding the nickname has taken on all forms, and for CBS lead analyst Phil Simms and NBC studio analyst Tony Dungy, their protest will be to avoid saying it.” As writer Frank Schwab explained, “Simms told AP he’s not taking a side in the debate about whether the nickname is offensive, but he’s just sensitive to the complaints. But the controversy has now forced NFL broadcasters to pick sides, simply by questioning whether they’ll use the name on air or not.” Tom Jackson of ESPN said he was leaning toward following Dungy’s example.

Also in the news: a CBS rules analyst and former NFL referee who says he has never used the “proper” name and has refused to referee Washington’s games since 2006.

The month’s biggest news on this front was the Washington Post editorial board’s decision to stop using the team name. “This page has for many years urged the local football team to change its name. ‘The term “Redskins,” ’ we wrote in 1992, ‘is really pretty offensive,’ ” the editorial read, continuing, “while we wait for the National Football League to catch up with thoughtful opinion and common decency, we have decided that, except when it is essential for clarity or effect, we will no longer use the slur ourselves…. as Mr. Carey noted, every time the R-word is used, something disrespectful is happening.” It was a change only for editorials, not for the sports or news pages, but it was a good step.

September 2014: More than 100 Native American and social justice groups asked thousands of broadcasters to refrain from using the team name. The coalition cited ESPN’s Lisa Salter and CBS’s James Brown as well as Simms and Dungy as among those who do not use the name on air.

The same story mentioned an ESPN survey of 286 NFL players finding that 58 percent think the name should stay and 42 percent think it should go. In a separate survey of 51 players on the team in question, 26 said keep it, 1 said change it, and 24 “declined to answer.”

Then there was the opening episode of South Park that took on owner Dan Snyder, the team, and its name. A startup company needs a name, and which name is available after losing trademark protection? Snyder: “You cannot let my people be belittled like this.” Bwah!

October 2014: The National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization, joined the call for the team (and the NFL) to change the name. Last year, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, whose members include the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, did the same and urged the team to “refrain from the use of any other images, mascots, or behaviors that are or could be deemed harmful or demeaning to Native American cultures or peoples.”

November 2014: Another month, another protest, this time 3,500 to 4,000 people (mostly Native Americans) chanting “not your mascot” outside the Washington-Minnesota game in Minneapolis. It was perhaps the largest such protest, ensuring lots of media coverage. Another reason: The stadium was built in part with a $10 million donation from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and a plaza honors the state’s 11 federally recognized tribes. “Controversy had swirled around the Vikings game since August because of demands by the University of Minnesota to limit use of the team name and logo inside the stadium,” the Washington Post wrote. “But school officials insisted that they could not dictate behavior to the Vikings organization, which is paying the university $300,000 a game to use the stadium while its new facility in Minneapolis is being built.”

Does it count as news if it’s a surprise to no one? Maryland governor-elect Larry Hogan immediately announced that he liked the current team name and saw no need to change it.

Capping the month, Rolling Stone named Dan Snyder—“the staunch defender of an unambiguously racist name”—the worst owner in all of sports. The magazine spent a long, detailed paragraph on his “invoking tradition to defend the indefensible” before even alluding to the team’s abysmal playing record.

December 2014: Proving that some supporters are at least as tone-deaf (to put it kindly) as the owner and his team, a group raising funds to fight cancer organized an event it called Scalp Out Cancer: Because Bald Is Beautiful. “That’s insane. Really? They’re that clueless?” said Tara Houska, who pulled together a rally against the team name near its own stadium at month’s end—just as the fundraiser was to take place. The fundraiser was renamed Shave Out Cancer, though its coordinator, Michael Kennedy, told the Washington Post the event’s original name had not been a reference to the Native American mascot.

February 2015: Members of the Sandy Spring Friends School student government researched the issue and decided to ban the local pro football team’s name throughout campus, including on clothing. The ban applies to faculty as well. Lately students have been wearing apparel with the logo but not the name: “They still want to support their team, which I totally am behind,” a co-clerk of the government told the Gazette, which has since ceased publication. “But they also want to support Native Americans.”

May 2015: The whole team lives in Virginia, two-thirds of season-ticket holders do too, and Virginia’s governor wants the team to move there. Now Arlington County’s board has passed a resolution calling on the team to change its name, calling it “objectionable … a racist slur and derogatory.” The board’s vice chair, J. Walter Tejada, said the current name “serves to divide us, diminishes our humanity, and erodes our integrity”—but a change would be “a fresh start” were the team to relocate. Hint, hint. (Tejada said he also considers the name a personal insult, as he immigrated from El Salvador as a youth and is descended from Mayans.)

June 2015: The United Church of Christ is the latest religious group to call on the team to change. According to the Washington Post, UCC asked its nearly 1 million members to boycott games and merchandise until that goal is achieved. “The church has condemned the use of Native American imagery for sports teams since 1991,” the story said. “It has also asked the Cleveland Indians to change its name and controversial mascot, Chief Wahoo.”

Meanwhile, “a bill at the state Capitol would make California the first state to ban public schools from using ‘Redskins’ as their nickname or mascot,” according to Capital Public Radio. The bill has passed the Assembly and its first Senate committee.

July 2015: The Washington team has made noises about coming back to the city, maybe to the site of RFK Stadium, where it played for years before decamping for Maryland. But Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has told DC Mayor Muriel Bowser that the National Park Service (which owns the RFK land) would not allow a new stadium there without a new name. “I think we would never consider naming a team the Blackskins or the Brownskins or the Whiteskins. So personally, I find it surprising that in this day and age, the name is not different,” Jewell had told ABC News.

Later, a headline: “Judge upholds cancellation of Redskins trademarks in a legal and symbolic setback for the team.” This time it’s a federal judge in Northern Virginia. Says the Washington Post, “The cancellation doesn’t go into effect until the Redskins have exhausted the appeals process in the federal court system”—though the team can use the name and logo under state law regardless. And yet another high school team is dropping the name it shares with the Washington team.

And in August: In a controversial move, team owner Snyder has been donating through his Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Now South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux council has voted to reject the funds—and ordered its chair and the 8,000-member tribe to “cease all unsanctioned communication with the Washington Redskins and any group or person associated with them.” Before the vote, Councilmember Ryman LeBeau posted online a photo of an uncashed $25,000 foundation check and wrote, “Sold our souls. Price was cheap.”

Whew! On that note, here’s to a 2015-16 season of more activism, fewer trademarks, more protests, and less name use for the Insultingly Named, Obnoxiously Hyped Washington NFL Franchise.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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