Football; more than a sport, it’s the quintessential American pastime. Recent news headlines have triggered inquiry into one of the nation’s most notorious NFL teams, the Washington Redskins. While sports controversies consistently surface in the media, not often are the headlines related to issues of cultural appropriation and degradation of minority groups. In a league that identifies with sportsmanship and inclusiveness, the irony of the issue at hand is uncanny. While some argue that team names such as these pay an homage to American history, others are devastated by the culture of racism they’re accused of promoting. In most cases, these teams were founded decades ago during an era that was much less sensitive towards issues of cultural appropriation. That being said, this does not make the issue at hand exempt from due criticism. Should these teams be allowed to stick to their roots and abide by longstanding traditions? Or, should they be forced to respect the wishes of those who are offended by such practices?
The FCC Doesn’t Back Down
The real conversation began in December of 2014, when a formal petition brought forth to the Federal Communications Commission, requesting the immediate removal of the use of the word “Redskins” from radio and television broadcast, was denied. The petition was launched on the ideology that the team’s name was disrespectful and obscene in nature. However, the FCC ruled that the name was deserving of no such address, as to be officially considered “obscene,” it must “depict or describe sexual conduct;” criteria that was long outdated – much like the team’s name. One of the most notable complaints received by the FCC was filed by George Washington University student Brian Barlow; vice president of GWU’s Native American Student Association. Barlow is a member of the Cherokee Nation, and felt personally responsible to shed light on the issue which he felt was offensive towards all members of the Native American community.
“The term ‘Redskin’ is dictionary-defined as offensive and outdated. It is intrinsically derogatory, and I should not have to hear an offensive racial epithet describing my people… OBSCENE and INDECENT. Change the name,” stated Barlow.
Barlow, along with the many others who filed formal complaints regarding the issue, was disappointed although not shocked to learn just how few people had taken action against the FCC in addressing the inappropriate nature of the team’s name. “There are older generations of Natives who don’t have a problem with the word, it’s just a part of who they are,” added Barlow.
Joel Barkin, active vice president of communications for the Oneida Indian Nation commented: “the number doesn’t surprise me, because if you look at where most of the organizing activity has been, it hasn’t really been going toward the FCC. We’ve really directed much more of our efforts to going directly to the media and requesting that they don’t use the word.” Barkin and the OIN are the group behind the Change the Mascot campaign – the primary movement behind the opposition of the team’s name. Though the FCC has remained inactive towards concerns, many members of the media have taken notice and action against the matter.
Currently, there are nearly 50 media sources who have chosen not to use the word “Redskins.” Possibly one of the most impactful contributions to date has been a letter, sent in May of 2014 by 50 senators to the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, encouraging him to address the matter by changing the team’s unnecessary name. The letter, which was written primarily by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. D-Nev., and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, stated that “the Washington, D.C. football team is on the wrong side of history. What message does it send to punish slurs against African Americans while endorsing slurs against Native Americans?” A valid counterpoint indeed. Following the letter, the U.S Patent and Trademark Office promptly revoked Washington’s trademark on the name – although this decision was appealed by the team immediately. The PTO reports that it may take years before a resolution is reached.
ESPN Up to Kick
Senior writer for ESPN, Mike Wise, published a powerful article in September of 2015 describing his position on the controversial issue. As someone who is deeply imbedded in the world of sports culture and media, his reflections on the matter hold significant value. “Working as a journalist in Washington for parts of the past two decades,” writes Wise, “always created an internal dilemma: Was I really just chronicling a football team, or was I peripherally participating in the continued disparagement of America’s indigenous people? Even when I hid behind ‘professional duty,’ I always knew the answer.”
“Working as a journalist in Washington for parts of the past two decades,” writes Wise, “always created an internal dilemma: Was I really just chronicling a football team, or was I peripherally participating in the continued disparagement of America’s indigenous people? Even when I hid behind ‘professional duty,’ I always knew the answer.” – Senior Sports Writer Mike Wise, ESPN
Wise no longer reports on Washington’s NFL team, nor does he attend or participate in any of their games. The writer explains that it took stepping outside of the Washington “box” on a professional level, before he was able to fully understand the grandiose scale of the situation. However, it seems that not all fans have come to the same conclusion as Wise. In late 2014, ESPN administered a survey asking participants whether or not Washington’s NFL team should change their name. Out of a staggering 150,000 total votes, only 37% of voters felt that the team should indeed change their name. In fact, every state polled held an overall vote to keep the name. Not only were these results disappointing to many, they were surprising. In light of recent events and progressive movements towards an intolerance towards the team’s name across news and social media, pollers had predicted the opposite result.
The Team’s Response
Former coach, now majority owner of the Washington Redskins, Daniel Snyder has made his opinions on the name-change issue extremely clear. While the (NFL) league has made itself repeatedly clear that they would make no official comment on the matter, Snyder has openly vowed that under no circumstance will he ever change the team’s name. “The Washington Redskins team, our fans and community have always believed our name represents honor, respect and pride.” states Snyder in an official press release statement. “Today’s [polls] show that Native Americans agree. We are gratified by this overwhelming support from the Native American community, and the team will proudly carry the Redskins name.”
Snyder’s comments are in reference to the polls distributed by the Washington Post, and many others alike – such as the one administered by ESPN. These results relay back to Brian Barlow’s comments regarding the older generation of Native American citizens. “Older generations of Natives […] don’t have a problem with the word, it’s just a part of who they are.” He says. Though it seems Snyder will remain firm in his precedent, the Redskin’s representatives have softened their stance regarding the issue, staying mindful of the sensitivities regarding the name. Various notable sports media figures have suggested privately held meetings between the team and various Native American tribes, in hopes of creating progressive discussion around the issue – the first step in addressing it.
What’s next for Washington?
Given the dynamics of the situation, change within the near future is highly unlikely. The National Football League cannot forcibly revoke the team’s trademark, and the likelihood of a change of heart on part of Snyder is slim to none. While FedEx and Budweiser, the team’s primary sponsors, hold the power to revoke their sponsorship dollars, this too is an incredibly unlikely scenario, given the financial value of the relationship. Sports fan’s have proposed alternate names such as The Washington Warriors, The Washington Skins, even The Washington D.C. Football Club – none of which have proven popular to the “yes” voters. While legal action regarding the use of the team’s name continues to take place on a state-by-state basis, there is currently no sign of an overall resolution on the horizon.