Most issues of race, ethnicity, sports and culture demand highly nuanced analyses that can lead to complicated final judgment. Not this one. “Retiring” the name and logo of Washington’s NFL team is an easy call. It is the right thing to do, and it should have happened long ago.
It isn’t so much that the name is teaching hate today, though, in some ways to some fans and viewers who are given to such attitudes it surely is. But its existence and prominent display in NFL media all these years reinforced and gave sanction to an ugly and false history that has branded Native Americans in a highly negative manner.
The historic and mainstream media branding of Native Americans as a warlike, savage and dangerous population that had to be subdued has been used for centuries to dehumanize them and justify the shameful crimes committed against them since the earliest days of the American experience. Check out “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” the story of a New England woman abducted by Native Americans written in 1682. It is considered America’s first bestseller by some American Studies scholars.
My generation of baby boomers was steeped in such messaging. From Disney’s “Davy Crockett” miniseries celebrating the Native-American-killing frontiersman on prime-time television, to John Ford’s artistically acclaimed feature film, “The Searchers,” in theaters, that’s the mainstream, pop-culture history we were taught as children and adolescents in the 1950s. Disney even marketed fake raccoon skin caps that we could wear when reenacting the violent on-screen scenarios in our play. All the better to identify with the “hero” of the hugely popular TV saga.
That it took team owner Dan Snyder and others who opposed the name change this long to start to understand how wrong the team’s name and logo are in today’s multicultural America speaks directly to the massive amount of work that still needs to be done when it comes to depictions involving persons of color.
I don’t think any wave of social justice has suddenly washed over Snyder, who once vowed to never change the name of the team. But with a part owner of the team, big-ticket sponsors and the mayor of the District of Columbia making their opposition to the name known, along with the presence the past few weeks of passionate, in-the-streets protest over racism, Snyder could no longer resist. Two weeks ago, he announced a “thorough review” of the name. (A new name and logo have yet to be announced.)
Snyder gets no praise from me for Monday’s action. If you want to give credit, direct it toward District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, who let her opposition to the “Redskins” name be known when she saw it as an “obstacle” to any hopes Snyder had of building a new stadium on the site of the old RFK Stadium when the team’s lease on FedEx Field ends in 2027.
Definitely send some praise in the direction of FedEx. According to The Associated Press, it was the first major sponsor to ask Snyder to change the team’s name. FedEx CEO Frederick Smith is part owner of the team. Other all-American, big-bucks, TV-advertising brands like Bank of America, Pepsi and Nike have since joined in opposition to the name.
Sadly in a hyper-capitalist, uber-corporate culture like ours, that’s what it takes ― the threat of multimillion-dollar pain in the pocketbook ― to get a rich owner to change a team name.
But on the positive side of the ledger, I believe one of the primary reasons those corporations and so many others have suddenly had their consciousness raised on matters of race and power is the protests in the streets of the nation since the death of George Floyd on May 25 by a white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes during an arrest.
Those protests, reinforced by a rising chorus of voices of professional athletes astutely critiquing racism in sports and culture, are making a difference. The corporate and advertising engines of the American economy need those athletes and fans of color if they hope to remain profitable. To ignore the voices calling for change is to imperil their bottom lines. That’s the takeaway from the news out of Washington Monday that matters to me and promises the possibility of a better America.