Posted tagged ‘cultural appropriation’

A football team that many refuse to name, Part 4

August 23, 2016

football-clip-art-aTeEjM8T4-2The Washington, DC, area’s professional football team is an embarrassment, and I don’t just mean its longtime on-field record. Every time I hear a newscaster or read a sportswriter refer more than once to “the burgundy and gold” or “Washington’s team,” I know he or she is deliberately avoiding saying the name of the team. Yeah, you know … (whispering) … the Redskins.

“We all make mistakes, so it makes sense if you were misguided and you participated in [cultural] appropriation without realizing it could be harmful,” reads a Web post I came across a few weeks ago on another topic. “It’s one thing if you own up to the fact that you accidentally did something that caused harm, and do your best not to do it again. It’s an entirely different story if you insist on continuing to appropriate just because you ‘don’t mean to hurt anyone.’ ” (Emphasis in the original.)

The movement to change the name of the capital’s pro football team suffered a setback this spring, but that’s a battle in a war that will ultimately be won. For now, a look at the year in cultural-appropriation skirmishes, football edition.

September 2015: Who cares about Deflate-gate when the Washington NFL team still has a rotten name? So said Senate minority leader Harry Reid in a CNN interview. “The name of the Washington football team is disparaging to a large number of my constituents, and he demeans them every day,” Reid said, referring to team owner Dan Snyder. On Twitter, the senator repeated: “I find it stunning that the NFL cares more about how much air is in a football than it does about a racist franchise name.”

October 2015: California (where else?) passed the nation’s first statewide ban on the ‘R’ name for sports teams, affecting four public schools. Individual school districts had already done so, including in Madison, Wisconsin, and Houston, Texas, according to Reuters. That led to another Washington Post editorial advocating a name change. In the presidential race, said Reuters, “former Florida governor Jeb Bush and billionaire Donald Trump have said they do not see a need to change the name.”

November 2015: Quote without comment, as The New Yorker sometimes says. From the Washington Post: “Nearly four months after a federal judge ordered the cancellation of the Washington Redskins’ federal trademark registrations for disparaging Native Americans, the National Football League is appealing with a provocative tactic: listing the names of porn, clothing and beer companies that use offensive language, but nonetheless have the support of the U.S. Patent and Trademark office. ‘By way of example only, the following marks are registered today; Take Yo Panties Off clothing; Dangerous Negro shirts … Midget-Man condoms and inflatable sex dolls,’ the Redskins lawyer wrote in their opening brief filed Friday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond. The lawyers added a footnote with 31 more trademark registrations, many of them unprintable in The Washington Post.”

December 2015: Snort! Headline on sports site SBNation: “Washington’s NFL Team Accidentally Revealed It Runs That ‘Fan’ Twitter Account Supporting Its Name.” Redskins Facts is a website/Twitter account supposedly operated by rabid fans who want to keep the name. The story, which made national news, noted that a tweet correcting a previous tweet on the official account went out simultaneously December 13 on both the official account and the “fan” one. Previously, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog had found the site intentionally misleading, and Slate had “strong evidence” that the website was created by a crisis-management firm.

January 2016: If you were listening to the January 22 broadcast of “The Dan Le Batard Show” on ESPN Radio, you heard mention of “the Washington Racial Slurs.” Bwah! The FishbowlNY daily media email reached back to a Cleveland Plain Dealer item from August 13, in which Jeff Darcy called team owner Dan Snyder “the Donald Trump of the NFL,” noted that “at least 23 Native American tribes have called upon the owner to change the team’s name,” and flagged the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo mascot as equally disparaging: It “actually matches Washington’s team name better than their own helmet logo.” He concludes, “As long as both teams continue to identify themselves with racial slurs and stereotypes, they will still be losers.”

February 2016: In recent years, the local team has been playing across the pond to show off “American football.” Now two members of the British Parliament have written to the NFL to say change the team’s name or send a different team—“one that does not promote a racial slur.” They added that the game could also be a problem for Wembley Stadium and the BBC. Even the Brits get it! The Oneida Indian Nation piled on, said CBS Sports, “blast[ing] the NFL for creating an international incident” by sending the team to London in October.

April 2016: CNN Money: “The Washington Redskins’ case surrounding whether or not the team can trademark its controversial name may go to the Supreme Court.” Yup, it just filed a petition following that Patent and Trademark Office decision back in June 2014 that it can’t get a trademark because the name is “scandalous, immoral, or disparaging.” To which the team said (as in November), hey, look at all these other things that are scandalous, immoral, or disparaging—and they have trademarks! Which is kind of a point. The team wants its case to be heard along with that of an Asian-American rock group called, yes, the Slants.

May 2016: According to the Washington Times (a right-wing paper, by the way), “The results of the survey of 504 American Indians by The Washington Post were identical to those of a 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll, meaning that a decade’s worth of advocacy by top progressives and media outlets against the Redskins name has moved the needle not a whit.” This pronouncement referred to a national poll showing that 90 percent of Native Americans say the team name doesn’t offend them. Prominent Native leaders promptly denounced the results even as Snyder and the team trumpeted them, and, said the Post, “news that such a large percentage of Native Americans do not care about the name could provide the necessary political cover for District leaders to welcome Snyder’s club to return to the site of RFK Stadium, where the Redskins used to play.”

Where did that leave the many sports journalists and the like who stopped using the name? Peter King of Sports Illustrated wrote a column on why he still won’t use it. As 21 percent of those surveyed felt the name disrespected Native Americans, King said, and the word is still a dictionary-defined slur, why go back? Former Post columnist Mike Wise, writing for ESPN’s The Undefeated; eternal NBC sportscaster Bob Costas; and USA Today’s Christine Brennan agreed, all wondering why a poll should influence a moral decision.

“If ethical decisions were decided by majority rule, the poor and the weak would have no moral standing; indeed, every minority group would be outvoted,” Wise said. “Public opinion is an evolving animal. What we think in the moment doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s morally right.”

It’s not just individual sportswriters. ran a column making not only an ethical but a business case for a name change. Washington City Paper is one of many newspapers and other media outlets that have an official policy of not naming this particular name. City Paper will continue to use “Pigskins,” backed by a February survey in which 58 percent of readers agreed that the team name is offensive. According to the Washington Post—whose editorial board will continue to avoid the name except when referring to the controversy itself—the only major media representative to revert is Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford, whose comment boils down to “majority rules.”

But as Mike Wise said, that’s not the way democracy or humanity works. I’ll bet it’s not ultimately the way the team’s name works, either. Anyone want to bet which departs first, the current name or the current owner?

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.