Like every good Virginian, I was a Redskins fan from birth, just like my father and his father and his father’s father… well, maybe it doesn’t go that far back, but you get the point. Then, one day when I was about five, my dad came home and announced our family was officially off the Redskins’ bandwagon. When I asked him why, he simply said some of his close Native American friends found the name very offensive. I accepted this, no questions asked, and stopped rooting for the Skins. The next time I remembered really watching football was during a Super Bowl Game featuring the San Francisco 49ers, and while my dad tried to get me to root for the other team, there was just something about the names Montana and Rice that I loved. They won the game in amazing fashion, and that was that. Despite the geographical discrepancy, I’ve been a 9ers fan ever since, even in the 2000’s when they sucked really, really bad.
It wasn’t until many years later that I finally looked further into the controversy and history surrounding the Redskins’ name. As it turns out, a big part of that history is how many people, including Native Americans, don’t know the history of the word or why it’s offensive. Honestly, I think many people like to stay ignorant about it so they can continue to not care that some people are offended. It makes it easier for them to simply write them off as being overly PC, irrational and whinny. But with a little research, it can quickly be seen that the word is legitimately offensive.
The basic history of the word is that Europeans and early Americans simply used it to describe the color of Native Americans, they were “red skinned.” However, the term was commonly used during some of the most brutal years of Native American history when they were hunted, killed and forcibly displaced from their lands in what can only be described as a genocide. Furthermore, the term was also used to refer to the scalps settlers would collect from Native Americans they killed back in the days when the Colonial government would pay for each “red skin” collected. The government paid the modern day equivalent of $18,000 for every red skin of a male over 12 and half that for every red skin of a woman over 12. However, they would only pay about $7,000 for the red skins of children. While the law itself didn’t use the word “red skins,” it was widely documented to be a common term for scalps. Also, a linguistic analysis of books written between 1875 and 1930 conducted by Bruce Stapleton shows there was an increasingly negative context in the way in which the word was used during that time. It was most often used in association with “dirty” and “lying.” I don’t think it takes much to see why some Native Americans take issue with the word today.
I won’t get into how Washington’s football team came to take on the name except to say they’ve been using it since 1933 when they moved from Boston to DC. I will concede that there is no clear evidence of malice or intentional offense meant when the owner changed the team’s name. However, this owner was also the last to integrate his NFL team. Furthermore, America’s racial history makes it clear no one would have cared anyway. Insensitivity and unintentional mockery was pervasive back then, even when people meant no harm. Remember, during that time black-face was said to not be offensive or demeaning toward black people. It’s easy to be that blind to what is and isn’t offensive when the people you’re offending aren’t empowered to speak. But how can I prove people back then didn’t care if what they were doing was offensive? I can prove it by how few people care about this issue now. Just think, after nearly wiping Native Americans off the face of the earth, the fifth largest sports franchises in the world openly mocks them by using a name some of them say is derogatory, offensive and a racial slur, and almost no one bats an eye. This is in our modern society which is a hell of a lot more sensitive about these kinds of things.
So when ten members of congress recently wrote a letter to the Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, asking him to change the team’s name, I was pleased to see this issue in the news again. Snyder, of course, has refused and publicly vowed the name will never change. I know this made a lot of my friends and family very happy, but to me, I don’t see why changing the name of something as trivial as a sports team to spare people blatant offense is such a big deal or even needs to be a contentious issue, once the facts are laid bare. It should be as simple as saying, “Oh, we didn’t realize the history behind the word. We’re sorry. We’ll change it.” The end. It seems like such a small price to pay to show some respect to a group of people this team, and Snyder, claims to admire and respect.
“The arch of history is long and bends towards justice,” Martin Luther King once said, and I believe as people become more and more enlightened, this issue will continue to gain momentum until this name is viewed as out of date as the use of the word “injun.” But for now, we see that the desires of one rich man can continue to trump the wishes of an unempowered minority.
As for my father, overlooking the fact that he tried to get me to root for the Bangles, I’m very proud of him. He recognized that there was no need for his favorite sports team’s name to offend anyone. It was a very respectable and costly position to take because it required more than just words from him. I’m also grateful because it spared me a life growing up a fan of one of the worst run sports franchises ever. I would’ve hated to have been one of those fans sitting around every preseason talking about how the newly signed, washed-up player (Dion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Donovan McNabb, to name a few) was just what the team needed to turn the whole thing around, only to be calling for the coach’s head three games into the season. I’m not going to say this is what Redskins fans deserve, but I’m glad it’s what they got.
Sidebar: As I said in this article, a lot of my friends and family are Skins’ fans and they are good people who truly view the name as inoffensive. But like I also said, few people in the country know the history behind the word but in the information age this is not an acceptable excuse anymore.