On January 6, 2014, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) in Alexandria, VA refused a trademark registration request for “Redskins Hog Rinds” on the grounds that the name contained a “derogatory slang term.” While other endeavours have been successful in securing trademarks containing the word “redskins” in the past, this instance is now the fourth “redskins”-related name to be refused trademark status under the rationale that the word is disparaging. In and of itself, this likely to be appealed decision might not warrant much national attention. But given that it came on the still smoking heels of the 2013 NFL season, a season where probably the most famous trademark holder of that term courted substantial controversy by aggressively denying its negative reading, the PTO decision received breathless coverage in the Washington Post, New York Post, conservative magazine National Review, and that arbiter of internet newsworthiness Deadspin, all wondering: Now, will the Redskins finally change their name?
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The Washington Redskins are one of the premier franchises in the NFL. Three Super Bowl wins. Two NFL Championships prior to the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Consistently ranked among the top three most valuable NFL franchises by Forbes Magazine, with a 2013 valuation of $1.7 billion. And paradoxically all this despite long periods of dysfunction and poor on field performance over the history of the franchise: the team missed the playoffs for twenty-six straight years, from 1946 to 1970. But during Redskins’ golden age they were dominant: in the 21 years from 1971 to 1991, the Redskins had 17 winning seasons, made the playoffs 12 times, appeared in five Super Bowls, and won three.
However, since winning their last Super Bowl in 1992, the team has posted only seven winning seasons (or ten, if you count 8-8 as a winning season)– while not the dregs of their 50s and 60s teams, their performance has not been in line with their expectations. Lately, in the 2012 NFC Wild Card playoff game, following an exciting and unexpected 10-6 season, head coach Mike Shanahan refused to take star quarterback Robert Griffin III out of the game until Griffin’s gruesome knee injury had advanced to the point the knee ceased functioning as a knee and began to resemble a socket joint. And in the 2013 NFL season the team slowly imploded, in the end leaving Shanahan without a job, Griffin entering the off season having been benched for the last several games of the season, and the city of Washington turning their collective attention and anxiety to the health of a different local athlete’s leg. But during their periods of plenty, most notably during head coach Joe Gibbs’ tenure in the 1980s, the Redskins basked in the glory of success– and beating those damn Cowboys.
However, unlike the other teams which found success in the 1970s and 1980s and now enjoy the soft, grainy focus of NFL Films’ mythmaking seemingly apart from time and space, the Redskins have for decades been embroiled in an emotional political controversy that has kept the team in the cold, sharp relief of modern times: a growing number of people consider the team’s name an ethnic slur.
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The genesis of the term seems to be somewhat clear. According to Ives Goddard, a historian and linguist with the Smithsonian Institute, the first recorded use of the term “red” in reference to Native Americans was made by a Taensa Indian Chief trading with the French in the early 1700s in what is now Alabama. This colored racial designation appears to have originated with the Native Americans themselves and then became standard with Europeans traders and colonists as well. It is worth noting that Taensa Chief referred to his people as “Red Men” as opposed to “red skins” but the coining of the color usage was still clear.
The specific term “red skin” did not come into the written record until the late 1760s, in what is now Illinois. The French having left the area in the early 1760s, English speaking traders and settlers initially interacted with the local Native Americans through the intermediary of the French language. The first instance of the term “red skin” in reference to Native American people was in the literal English translation of a French language message from Miami-language-speaking chiefs from the Piankashaw tribe to an English-language-speaking English Lieutenant Colonel. There was no record of the term being spoken publicly until 1812, however, when a delegation of Native Americans visiting the White House used the term “red skins” in remarks to President James Madison.
To a modern ear, much of what was said that day in Washington was almost unbelievably disrespectful. Madison repeatedly referred to the Native Americans as “my red children” and thanked the “great spirit” that allowed them safe passage on their long journey to see their “father.” And though these phrasings read as laughably condescending today, they also reflect a generally benign intent and attitude toward the Native Americans on the part of the President. However, as the nineteenth century unfolded and the battles of the Indian Wars filled the newspapers, pitting white pioneers against “savage redskins,” white Americans began to use the term in more racist and violent terms. Parallel to the term’s change in posture and rise in usage, many professional sports teams, high schools, and universities began adopting Native American names; by far the most common was “Indians,” although “Warriors,” “Chiefs,” and “Redskins” were also popular, in addition to the use of specific local tribes’ names, such as the “Seminoles” or “Fighting Sioux.”
(One should note that there is an alternate etymology for the term “redskins” as it is used to describe Native American people that is not as well grounded in the historical record but is still argued by the National Congress of the American Indian. This origin story asserts that “redskins” is a reference to human scalps that were used as proof of death by white settlers so that they might collect bounties for having killed Native Americans. This understanding of the word is based on a passage in the 1755 Phips Proclamation– England’s declaration of war against the Penobscot Nation of Native Americans– which read: “For every Scalp of such Female Indian or Male Indian under the Age of twelve years that Shall be killed and brought in as Evidence of their being killed as aforesaid, Twenty pounds.” That the passage does not use the term “redskins” seems to undermine the veracity of this theory, despite the fact that the brutal practice of scalping for bounties is historically accurate.)
As the twentieth century progressed, however, events that culminated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s changed the way most Americans thought about race and about what terms were acceptable to call groups of people. Today, the term “redskin” is essentially taboo and almost never used in public, the lone exception being in the context of sports team names. Many dictionaries list the word as derogatory or offensive and many writing style guides encourage its use only in a historical context. According to writer Ian Crouch, from the early 1970s to today, approximately two thirds of teams that had Native American names have adopted new ones. However, in the ranks of professional sports, it has been has also been common for teams to end use of Native American imagery while maintaining use of their names, as happened in the cases of the NBA’s Hawks and Warriors. But there are also teams that continue to use both Native American names and imagery, among them baseball’s Cleveland Indians, hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks, and the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
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Direct calls for the Washington Redskins to change their name have been long been running, going back to at least 1988 when the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) asked for a meeting with then-team owner Jack Kent Cooke to discuss the possibility of a name change. Cooke refused the meeting and told a UPI news wire reporter that “There’s not a single, solitary jot, tittle, whit chance in the world that the Redskins will adopt a new name.” Then in 1992, the NCAI initiated a challenge to the team’s trademark of the name with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), the appeals arm of the US Patent and Trademark Office, arguing that “redskins” is a slur and, in accordance with the Lanham Act—the primary trademark statute in the United States, which bars the registration of “disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous or disreputable” names— should not be granted trademark protection. That same year, on the heels of the Redskins’ Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills, ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser, then of the hometown Washington Post, wrote perhaps the first major sports column arguing in favor of a name change.
The following year, with RFK Stadium having turned 30 years old, the team entered talks with the District of Columbia and Congress to secure land for a new stadium in Washington, but availability of parking spaces and this name issue became sticking points. Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell attached a rider to the land use bill in the Senate calling for a name change before the final deal could be approved. Amid this controversy, Maryland moved opportunistically to invite the team to leave DC, no name questions asked. The team now plays its “home” games outside the city in Landover, MD. The TTAB challenge requesting the team’s trademark be vacated was successful pending appeal in 1999, but in 2003 the ruling was reversed in US District Court. The final appeal of this reversal was unsuccessful in 2009 on a technicality (the judge determined that the NCAI waited too long to file their suit after the trademark was first approved in 1967). A second suit challenging the trademark of the name was filed in 2006 by a different group of Native American plaintiffs; as of January 2014 it is still in the courts.
But during these years of legal wrangling, the issue of the name was not particularly large in the public’s mind. Then in May 2013, it very much was. Dan Snyder, the team’s current owner, responded to news that a Washington DC City Councilmember planned to introduce a resolution calling on the team to change its name by infamously telling USA Today:
“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
Perhaps Snyder felt emboldened by the precedent of Kent’s pugnaciousness in the 80s or by the team’s legal victory in 2009, but the dismissive callousness of his tone, maybe more than anything, caused the movement calling for a name change to catch fire. The Washington DC City Council passed that resolution officially asking that the name be changed, echoing a 2001 City Council resolution requesting the same thing. President Obama said he would support exploration of a different nickname. And the number of sports journalists and newspapers deciding to omit the nickname from their coverage of the team (instead referring to it as “Washington’s professional football team”) has grown in both number and stature, a (not all inclusive) list that currently includes:
Washington City Paper
Christine Brennan (USA Today)
The New Republic
San Francisco Chronicle
Philadelphia Daily News
Kansas City Star
Richmond (VA) Free Press
The high point in the national media for this controversy may have been during the October 13, 2013, Sunday Night Football national broadcast on NBC, when Bob Costas used his comment during halftime to discuss growing unrest and to offer his analysis and opinion of the situation. Below is a transcript of the meat of Costas’ analysis (because NBC has scrubbed the video from YouTube):
“Objections to names like Braves, Chiefs, Warriors and the like, strike many of us as political correctness run amuck. These nicknames honor, rather than demean. They’re pretty much the same as Vikings, Patriots, or even Cowboys. And names like Blackhawks, Seminoles and Chippewas, while potentially problematic, can still be okay provided the symbols are appropriately respectful…But think for a moment about the term “Redskins,” and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be if directed towards African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or any other ethnic group. When considered that way, “Redskins” can’t possibly honor a heritage or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present day intent.”
Reaction to Costas’ remarks was intense, especially among the segment of the population not demurred in their passions by the fact that the internet is forever. Tweets and columns critical of Costas’ rationale and decision to mention the issue at all poured out. The following day, Costas called in to the Dan Patrick Show on ESPN Radio to discuss the situation. Costas reiterated his belief that the name was in fact a slur and that there was a categorical difference between the term “redskins” and other Native American-inspired sports team nicknames, such as “braves” or “warriors.” And when Patrick asked Costas if it was appropriate for him to even be bringing this up at all during a sports broadcast, Costas, while noting deference to the difference in scale between this issue and the integration of baseball, placed the discussion of the nickname “Redskins” in a similar arena.
All of this attention to the issue begat a backlash, and ESPN’s Rick Reilly (writing in September 2013, prior to the Costas comment) may have been the highest profile person to articulate this counter-argument, which was three pronged. First, he argued that the nickname was not in fact racist, but instead an honorarium. Second, he argued that the term’s long history of usage as a mascot and sports team nickname in the United States conferred on it a kind of grandfathered special status whereby modern understandings of the word could not be used to argue against its continued use. Third, he argued a slippery slope that if the name “redskins” should be removed in response to the offense it causes, then why shouldn’t the name of the NBA’s Washington Wizards be changed in deference to people who believe it supports paganism?
Reilly relied heavily on anecdotes from individuals members of, or linked to, Native American tribes in his defense of the term. After the piece was posted on ESPN.com, Reilly’s father-in-law Bob Burns, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe and prominently quoted in the piece, publicly stated that the portions of Reilly’s article seeming to indicate Burns’ support for the term “redskins” were, in fact, the opposite of his true views. Burns’ language in his own post denouncing Reilly’s reporting cast use of the term in sharply racist terms, placing it in the wake of one of the United States’ most damning and indefensible institutions, slavery:
“When Rick’s article came out, it upset me to be portrayed as an “Uncle Tom” in support of this racial slur…I could never support the term “redskins” because we know first-hand what racism and ignorance has done to the Blackfeet people. Our people grew up hearing terms like nits, dirty redskins, prairie nigger, savages, heathens, lazy Indians and drunks — all derogatory terms used to label us. It is better today, but the underlying mentality is still there or obviously people would change the name.”
Reilly responded to Burns’ clarification with an odd series of tweets in which he claimed to “stand behind his reporting,” despite his interviewee’s clear assertion that Reilly misquoted him. The overall dialogue on the issue continued in much this same vein, with both sides talking past one another. And regardless of this confusion (the latest nail in the coffin of Rick Reilly’s sports writing career), the merits of the debate seemed to be beside the point, as polling at both the local Washington level and the national level (albeit from 2004) showed staunch inertia among the public for changing the same— although more recent polls showed that these views were evolving. As of this writing in January 2014, the issue has continued to smolder— it was named one of the issues of the year for 2013 by ESPN’s investigative documentary program Outside The Lines— though the summer’s flames have dissipated.
In October 2013, after finding his secondary defensive strategy of trotting out a man with tenuous connections to the Native American community to play act “Indian” and assert support for the name as ineffective as his initial belligerence, Snyder released a cloying letter to season ticket holders describing how his boyhood attendance at a Redskins game currently informs his understanding of the team’s name and its place in society. He argued that tradition demanded that the name remain:
“That tradition — the song, the cheer — it mattered so much to me as a child, and I know it matters to every other Redskins fan in the D.C. area and across the nation. Our past isn’t just where we came from — it’s who we are.”
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The Washington Redskins began life in 1932 as the Boston Braves. Two years prior, the Newark Tornadoes, having lost their coach to another team– who then promptly poached most of their good players— posted a single win season. After the team walked off the field for the final time at the close of the 1930 season, the franchise folded and was sold back to the NFL.
Then in 1932 West Virginian George Preston Marshall, wealthy from success in the commercial laundry industry, secured the available franchise and moved it to Boston. But the Frankenstein Tornadoes would not be brought back to life without a new coat of paint. As the team would be sharing the facility of MLB’s Boston Braves (which would themselves go on to be the Milwaukee and then Atlanta Braves), Marshall christened his new team the Braves as well. They posted a 4-4-2 record that first year in 1932, getting shut out five times (one of which was a surely excruciating 0-0 tie against the New York Giants) and ending the season with a -24 point differential. Perhaps because of this inauspicious beginning, Marshall brought his paint bucket out again in the off season, moving the team to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, and changing its name to the Boston Redskins.
Why Marshall settled specifically on the name “Redskins” is not definitively known. Based on events up to the renaming, one might observe that Marshall, already clearly as a fan of MLB-NFL name synergy when the teams share facilities, may have wanted his football team to have a name similar to its new roommate, the Red Sox. But this possible coincidence aside, the name’s most commonly cited origin story has to do with the man who was to be the team’s new coach in Fenway: William “Lone Star” Dietz, a successful college football coach who claimed to be part Sioux, on his mother’s side.
(Though Marshall couldn’t have known this at the time, Dietz was destined to lead the Redskins to an 11-11-2 record over two years before returning to the college game. If the team really was named for Dietz, Washington fans are lucky the practice of endorsing a newly hired college coach with a team name change ended there, or else this article about the “Washington Sun Visors” would be a lot different.)
This name origin story (first publicly articulated by Dan Snyder in 1999 in his appeal of the TTAB’s decision to cancel the team’s trademark, and repeated endlessly since) goes that Marshall wanted to “honor” Dietz by renaming the team the “Redskins.” This would be odd, given that the team was already the “Braves,” and it is seemingly unclear why it would be more of an honor for a Native American person to be associated with a team called the “Redskins” as opposed to the “Braves.” But Dietz was a former player and assistant coach with the legendary Carlisle Indian School Redskins, a Pennsylvania college football program coached by Pop Warner that was famously dominant at the turn of the twentieth century. He was also white. But in Dietz’s case, the possibility that a white man would receive the honorarium “Redskin” from another white man is the least strange part of the story.
According to a fascinating and exhaustively researched article by Linda Waggoner in the Magazine of Western History, William “Lone Star” Dietz was born in 1884 in Rice Lake, WI, to German parents who had been pioneers. He grew up an average kid in a town where his father was the sheriff. He played sports, loved to draw, and was teased by other children for looking like an Indian, having inherited dark hair and high cheekbones from his German paternal grandmother. He graduated from high school and attended college in St. Paul, MN, where he studied art and played football.
In 1904, Dietz attended the World’s Fair in St. Louis, working as a paid artist in the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School exhibit, wherein students of the school were to show their “domestic, industrial, and agricultural training to fairgoers.” Indian boarding schools were established by the federal government in the 1880s in an attempt to reeducate Native American children into mainstream American culture. (If that sounds pretty racist, it was. Chilocco was established in the mold of the Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School, founded by Richard Henry Pratt, a man known for coining the pithy slogan “Kill the Indian in him; Save the Man.”) Dietz was not a student at the Chilocco School, nor, as we have established, was he Native American. (According to Waggoner, how exactly he landed the job is a mystery.) But he was dark featured and an excellent artist— traits that “made him appear an exemplary model for the government’s success in assimilating Indian children.”
This experience at the World’s Fair was the first recorded instance of Dietz “passing” as Native American and it was to change his life. In the Washington Post’s coverage of the event, Dietz was described as “full-blooded Sioux” and his artwork was commended. It appears that he allowed everyone he encountered to believe he was a student at the school, though he had come to the Fair from Minnesota and the school was located in Oklahoma, so say nothing of the fact that he was ethnically a white person. However, in a circumstance turning his adolescent taunting inside out, Dietz found himself praised as a good Indian and noted for his artistic talent. He rolled with his new Native American persona and began cobbling together an invented life history based largely on an actual Native American person named James One Star, an Oglala Indian who disappeared in the 1890s, the existence of whom Dietz learned after attending a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
James One Star was born in 1871 (thirteen years prior to Dietz) and attended the famous Carlisle Indian School. He had one older sister, named Sallie, and an uncle who was a member of Buffalo Bill’s show. In the early 1892, he joined the US Army, briefly guarding Geronimo and his Apache followers when they were held in military barracks in Alabama. One Star was dishonorably discharged from the Army in 1894 for drinking and then disappeared, never to be mentioned again in recorded history.
Cribbed from this reality, Dietz’s story went something like this: His father, in his early adulthood pioneer days, had been attacked by a group of Indians and their camp besieged. In an attempt to broker a solution to the situation, Dietz’s father entered the Indian camp and befriended the chief. Apparently, he impressed the Indians because he was able to get his own lodge and an Indian wife. When the US military arrived to end the siege, Dietz’ father decided to remain with the Indians had two children by his Indian wife, a girl named Sallie and a boy named Lone Star. After several years with the Indians, Dietz’s father decided to return to white America, leaving his Indian wife and children. After reestablishing himself in Wisconsin, Dietz’s father returned to the Indians to collect his by then eight year old son, Lone Star/Dietz, whom he then enrolled in school, where he would be teased for looking like an Indian.
This story was clearly fabricated for a number of reasons, perhaps the foremost being that during his supposed time living with the Indians, Dietz’s father was actually the elected sheriff of Rice Lake, WI. But in the early twentieth century access to information in the form of background checks was not what it is today; people credulously bought the entire story. And regardless of his story’s authenticity, Dietz was able to parlay his new heritage into a series of football opportunities, first at the Chilocco School and then at the flagship Indian school, Carlisle.
As part of its curriculum geared toward integrating Native American children into mainstream American culture, Carlisle made use of military training techniques that went hand and hand with the establishment of a sports program. In the 1890s, the school’s football team began to gain national recognition when former Yale’s former All American quarterback Vince McCormick was hired as coach. The team called themselves the “Red Men”— in the tradition of Yale’s conception of a “Yale Man” and an interesting echo of original Taensa identification with “red.” But in print coverage of their increasingly competitive games, the more aggressive colloquialism “redskins” was applied to the team.
In 1899, Carlisle hired Glen “Pop” Warner as their new coach—a position he would hold until 1914. During Warner’s tenure, Carlisle— the “redskins”— was among the best college football teams in the country, defeating the heavyweights of the era, including Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania. Jim Thorpe, maybe the best American athlete of the first quarter of the twentieth century, played for Warner. By the time Dietz arrived at Carlisle in 1907, the team was, as Waggoner notes, “legendary.” And due to the fact that Carlisle was an Indian school, their games were often viewed as having a societal significance beyond normal athletic competition.
It is difficult to overstate the cultural resonance of the West during the first half of the twentieth century. Despite the American frontier officially ending following the 1890 Census, a West of cowboys, Indians, saloons, and sheriffs loomed enormous in the American consciousness. Across all types of media, from books, to songs, to television, to movies, the characters of the western were almost hegemonicly popular. So when Carlisle, an Indian School, would play Princeton, essentially an all-white school, white spectators overlaid the lens of the West on the game, seeing battles of the frontier reenacted on the football field. In fact, white spectators’ and journalists’ propensity to view Carlisle’s games as “us vs. them” pioneer battles infuriated Carlisle founder Pratt, thwarted in his efforts to “kill the Indians.”
Dietz played on the Carlisle team for several years and eventually became an assistant coach on Warner’s staff in 1912. When Warner left the school in 1914 under the cloud of an illegal recruiting scandal, Deitz felt sure he was next in line for the head coach position. However, Carlisle was in the early stages of an implosion (the school was closed in 1918) and Dietz wound up the head coach of the Washington State Cougars. Dietz continued to be a colorful character—dodging the draft for World War One (and serving 30 days in jail for it), acting in a number of movies (by his account, always as a villain), and continuing what would become a lifelong pose as a Native American under the assumed identity of a man thirteen years his senior who had disappeared in the 1890s—while staking out a successful career as a college football coach. Dietz would go on to coach Purdue, Louisiana Tech, Wyoming, and the Haskell Indian Nations University before being hired by Marshall to coach the new “Redskins” in 1932.
Given the Carlisle team’s great fame, especially among people interested in football, it is reasonable to assume that Marshall was aware of the reference his new “Redskins” team was making, especially given that his new coach was both a former player and a coaching protégé of the esteemed Pop Warner. Though nothing can be certain, it seems likely that this is why the team was given the name “Redskins.” The honorarium story contains a kernel of truth.
But the new paint didn’t help. The Redskins stayed a .500 team during Dietz’s two year tenure and then changed coaches twice more before finally posting a winning season in 1936. Marshall took the opportunity to make one final adjustment to his franchise: moving it to Washington, DC. Perhaps because of the failure of the name change to inspire improved performance the previous time, Marshall did not again rename the team when they moved into Griffith Stadium, a shared facility with MLB’s Washington Senators. (Washingtonian note: Griffith Stadium was demolished in 1965 and is now the site of the Howard University hospital.) In 1937, their first year in the national capital, the Redskins finally made good, posting an 8-3 record and winning the NFL Championship.
Now set with a city, a name, and a winning record, Marshall turned his attention to other aspects of marketing his team and the game of football. The move to Washington made the Redskins the NFL’s southernmost franchise, and Marshall embraced the opportunity to market his organization as the team of the Old South. In 1938, he debuted a marching band, a gimmick pulled from college football, and a new fight song, “Hail to the Redskins.” Among the band’s most played tunes was, unsurprisingly, “Dixie.”
This southern strategy was complemented by the NFL’s next several decades of expansion. For 30 years, from 1936 until the debut of the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins in 1966, the Redskins were the southernmost team in the NFL on the east side of the Mississippi River. Absent other regional competition, fans of professional football in the southeast had only one team to root for, and that team actively courted them. To this day, despite the addition of the Falcons, Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1976), Tennessee Titans (1997— formerly the Houston Oilers), Carolina Panthers (1995), and Jacksonville Jaguars (1995) in the southeast United States, it is not uncommon, especially in areas with older populations, to encounter pockets rabid Redskins fans far far south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Regarding the product on the field, Marshall, along with Chicago Bears owner George Halas, was an early proponent of the forward pass and the field goal, going so far getting the league to move the goal posts from the back of the end zone to the goal line, so as to encourage field goals. This layout was standard in the NFL until the mid-70s when the league decided to lessen the impact of the kicking game, returning the goal posts to the original location. These efforts, for better or worse, endeared the team to the city, the region, and the South, as did a string of nine straight winning seasons following the move to Washington, from 1936 to 1945. When the Redskins formed a radio network in 1946 and had all their games televised in the South in 1950—innovative moves, both— their fans’ support was assured.
Yet despite this record of success and innovation (the forward pass!), Marshall’s legacy is equally comprised of tremendous racism. From the beginning, the Redskins were an all-white outfit and Marshall fought to keep them that way, even after the NFL began featuring black players in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson famously broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. (Curiously, the NFL did not have a ban on black players until 1933— an interesting coincidence given Marshall’s at-the-time recent entrance into the league in 1932 and soon-to-be well established predilection toward being rabidly racist.)
After the NBA began admitting black players in 1950, all three major American sports were integrated, even as some individual teams continued to stand astride history yelling, Stop! The two longest holdouts ended up being the Redskins and their old friends from Boston, the Red Sox. But after the Red Sox finally integrated in 1959, the Redskins were left the only team among the three major sports still implementing a “whites only” player personnel policy. In that same year, Marshall revised the lyrics of “Hail to the Redskins,” changing “Fight for old DC!” to “Fight for old Dixie!”
As the 1960s began, societal pressure for the integration of the Redskins became acute as the Kennedy Administration placed anti-discrimination language into Marshall’s newly signed 30 year lease for federally owned DC Stadium (later to be renamed in honor of a different Kennedy). As Michael Tomasky wrote in the New York Times Review of Books in 2011:
“During the summer of the Freedom Rides, the Redskins drama intensified. The American Nazi Party marched outside the new stadium, carrying placards saying “Keep Redskins White!” The NAACP and CORE picketed the stadium and Marshall’s house. Marshall insisted that the government had no right to tell him how to run his business.”
Despite his entrenched and stubborn, to-the-last-man resistance, Marshall eventually fell in line with the arc of the moral universe. In 1962, the young NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle brokered an agreement and the Redskins ended up drafting a number of black players that year, including Ernie Davis, the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy and the subject of the profoundly sad 2008 movie The Express. Despite this recognition of changing cultural realities in the public (or perhaps more accurately, commercial) sphere, Marshall held tight to his racist views in his personal life, and death. Before he expired in 1969, he endowed the George Preston Marshall Foundation with $6 million to serve the interests of the children of Washington, DC; he stipulated, however, that the money could not be used “for any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration.”
Following Marshall’s death, ownership of the franchise eventually shifted to a minority owner. Jack Kent Cooke, born in Canada to white South African parents and wealthy from a diverse number of media investments in Canada, had purchased a quarter stake in the Redskins in 1960 for $300,000 amid the “Keep the Redskins White” controversy. During the rest of the 1960s, Cooke would go on to buy the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers in 1965, found the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings in 1967, and build the Great Western Forum. In the early 70s, after suffering a heart attack, Cooke began selling off his empire (he sold the Lakers and Kings to Dr. Jerry Buss) and focused his energy on the Redskins, of which he became the majority owner in 1974, around the time when a boyish Dan Snyder was being enraptured by the team’s name. Though Cooke missed out on being a part of the golden era of the Lakers (he had drafted Magic Johnson before selling the team in 1979), he was just in time for the Redskins’. Following an 8-8 season in 1981– Job Gibbs’ first– the Redskins won the Super Bowl in the strike-shortened 1982 season and began their decade of dominance. When Cooke died in 1997, he too endowed a foundation in his name. However, the Cooke Foundation had a much less spiteful mission of “…supporting individuals of exceptional promise – those who work hard, stay focused, and defy the stereotype that poverty precludes high achievement.”
The Cooke Foundation sold the Redskins to Dan Snyder in 1999, during whose tenure the team has thus far had four winning seasons.
* * *
At the beginning of its 2013 season, the NFL began running a series of ads where famous people, soft focused and backlit, described their personal connections to the game of football. One featured actor Rob Lowe (forever Sam Seaborn, and there are few higher honors) talking about the Lowe Family Turkey Bowl that he and his brothers have been playing annually on Thanksgiving since 1976. He gets a little choked up as he recounts a broken play– “they’re all broken plays”– where he threw an unlikely game winning pass to his son. As he says, “Dad to son. Touchdown.”
While Lowe is literally talking about a backyard touch football game, one of many played on the crackling leaves of fall every year across the country, its pretty obvious he (and by extension, the NFL) is making a broader argument about the ways in which football binds American fathers and sons. Put another way, he is talking about football as a “repository of tradition.” Lowe’s recounting of that final touchdown pass spinning through the November air, miraculously on target amid the chaos of the Turkey Bowl, works as a pretty great metaphor for a father’s hope for his son’s future, which is clearly the reason he is tearing up, though I’m sure the touchdown in and of itself was satisfying (take that, Chad Lowe!).
Football (and all sports) can play this role in our lives; it can be a means through which we can have difficult conversations about the big, heavy gears of life– hope, love, even death– without talking specifically about their cold machinery. That is probably one of the most useful aspects of sports and fandom. That’s Rob Lowe’s Turkey Bowl.
Given this context, one might wonder how Rob Lowe might react if he were told he should change the name of his annual November game and no longer call it the “Lowe Family Turkey Bowl.” The reasons for the change are irrelevant insofar as they could be anything; the change itself is the critical issue. His first reaction might be opposition, opposition based on his always having called the game the “Turkey Bowl” coupled with his emotional response to the idea that the joy and tradition of the game might be in jeopardy. But on a second, more Seabornian thought, Lowe might realize that the name of the game was irrelevant– what mattered was that it continue to be played.
If we truly “make football together,” as the NFL proclaims in their series of ads, then the game is an ephemeral tradition; it only exists when we perform it. This is the difference between “a football,” sitting in a box of dusty sports equipment in the garage, and “football,” the means through which we are in communion with one another. Therefore it is the habit of playing football that truly binds us, that binds the Lowe family, together. The tradition of football– its power and moral weight, the thing that makes former players weep that the game saved their life– is the next play, and the next, and the next season, and the pass from a father to a son. The tradition is not a name.
In a 2013 poll conducted by the Washington Post, 82 percent of total respondents and 81 percent of self identifying “Redskins fans” indicated that a change to the team’s name would “not make much difference” with respect to their support of the team.
It is time for the Redskins to change their name.