One Commissioner (Roger Goodell), one owner (Dan Snyder), one former gridiron great (Joe Theismann) and one current, very popular player (Robert Griffin), all taking a stand in defense of an Indian moniker does not a PR-victory make, but it’s starting to feel that way.
The narrative is changing.
No longer fixated on charges by some that the Washington Redskins nickname is racist & disrespectful to aboriginal Americans, there’s been a perceptible shift in mood on the debate, with topic more often now turning to assertions of pride & respect for Indian heritage directed at, and flowing from, the Washington handle.
Not that public opinion was ever trending big for change, anyway.
I didn’t take a poll, but then, the anti-Redskins group hasn’t exactly been keen on taking the pulse of Indian nations themselves, even as the tribal rank & file probably wouldn’t mind having their opinions gauged on the subject.
Keeping a nickname that’s been around since crooner Rudy Vallee & early FDR (’33 Boston) doesn’t exactly send thousands pouring into the streets in protest, any more than does an NSA domestic eavesdropping program we all signed-off on, post 9-11-01. Though, messing with our touchstones can sometimes create a firestorm (See; new Coke).
Nike notwithstanding, most human beings, most often, favor continuity over change.
But when ten members of Congress (May letter to Goodell) and a local DC politico (David Grosso‘s removal resolution reportedly had majority Council support (“Pol Calls” / ESPN (AP) / 5-1) make waves on an NFL logo, media story-spotters dive in head first.
It’s true that some of the most noble causes in history had scant public support in early stages (desegregation), but besides PC-forces, play-it-safe college elite and an unclear tribal voice, the 30-year Indian-moniker removal policy, while largely successful, has appeared more form-fashionable than substance-significant, i.e., it hasn’t resonated.
Turning point in this battle in the War of Perspective may’ve come in NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s public response (6-11) to the fed letter, appearing in the online Indian Country Today Media Network. In it, he backs Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder, validating the moniker Snyder vows to never change: “the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect (“Roger“ / Huff-Post / 6-12 / C. Greenberg).”
Goodell adds, “the issues raised are complex, and we respect that reasonable people may view it differently. The (NFL) takes seriously its responsibility to exemplify the values of diversity and inclusion that make our country great (“Roger” / HP (CBS)).”
One Congressional co-signer (10), Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), shot back via social media, “Disappointed in NFL’s (“twisted logic”) attempt to justify a racial slur.” “Would (Goodell & Snyder)…greet tribal leaders by saying ‘Hey, what’s up redskin (“Roger” / HP (Twitter / USAT)) / 6-11)?’
Yes Betty, context matters. Bravo.
And do we really want ‘Hallmark® suitability’ as our standard for racism? Probably not.
There are all kinds of neutral words that would perplex or offend people greatly if used in as forced, far-fetched, bizarre a fashion as Betty’s, “Hey, redskin” greeting.
As for Roger, most other Commissioners would’ve gone the appeasement route. Not this guy. Whether it’s a notorious logo, non-contracted tackling (Bountygate) or use of PEDs…wait a second, that one’s still a cancer on the League (See; DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA), regardless, it‘s fair to say half-measures are the exception with Roger Goodell.
Former Redskins’ quarterback and the man who picked up where shill-meister Fran Tarkenton left off, Joe Theismann has a Washington bias. But his recent entrance into the fray has a serious ring of sincerity and persuasiveness.
“I was very proud to play for the Washington Redskins and did it to honor native people in that regard,” spoke Joe last week. “I can just tell you that when I put that uniform on, and I put that helmet on with the Redskin logo on it, I felt like I was representing more than the Washington Redskins, I was representing the great Native American nations that exist in this country (“Theismann” / NESN-Fox / 6-22-13).
The name Charles Evans Hughes may not ring a bell but he was a player back in the days of electric trolleys: Supreme Court Chief (‘30-41), NY Governor (‘07-10), Presidential nominee (‘16), Secretary of State (‘21-25), professor, progressive and on and on. But he’s best remembered for one famous line he spoke the year Tinker, Evers & Chance made their mark (‘07): “(T)he Constitution is what the judges say it is.”
Charlie rattled some cages with that one. Truth is a bitter drink when parched of courage.
Definitions work that way, too. Words can mean pretty much whatever we want ’em to mean. There are practical boundaries, to be sure, but there should be room to move.
But that’s not how the anti-Redskins’ contingent sees it. And they’re boxing us all in, no room for debate, ‘It’s a racist moniker and that’s that.’ They might mean well, but then, the “road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Kinda’ like a do-gooder bully.
If you looked-up ‘redskin’ in most on-line dictionaries today you’d probably find ‘racial slur’ attached. That’s not necessarily what the majority of America believes, but then our publishers and college Boards of Trustees are now steered by folk who are going well beyond their 70s mandate of historical accuracy & inclusiveness.
I’m not persuaded mere mention of skin-color (red) in a moniker connotes racism.
Today, most of us use black or white to identify those said races (‘skin’ implied), passing on Caucasian, Negroid and the hyphenated-American thing which has only found usage with PC columnists, speech writers and those who’ve made heritage a top priority in their life.
As for “skin” in “Redskins,” it gives a certain cadence, and a clarity.
Was ‘redskin’ ever a favored expression of those speaking angrily or hatefully of indigenous people?
On it’s face it’s descriptive rather than demeaning. And when compared to the plethora of harsh, Indian expressions that publishers and then Hollywood penned for 150 years, many of them strongly suggestive of racism (“heathen,” “red devil,” “blood-thirsty savages”), ‘redskin’ shouldn‘t ruffle too many feathers.
It’s those mostly negative Indian portrayals in earlier movies & television which began to wane in the 60s but which might, even today, embarrass or slightly offend tribal people.
“The Searchers” is one famous example.
John Ford’s ‘56 classic is ranked “greatest western” by AFI and was showcased as an “Essential“ on TCM in June. I’d go “Red River” myself (#1) but “Searchers” easily rates as one of the best, possessing an almost cowboy film-noir feel in Technicolor. And it’s portrayal of Indians is typical of the time, essentially one-dimensional props for the main white characters, written either as cruel (“Scar”), confused or desperate (“Look”).
And what would Rep. McCollum and Mr. Grosso have us do with these period classics, toss ‘em in the dumpster as “racist?” THAT, might “send thousands into the streets in protest.” But they don’t want to start trouble with the art community, right? Right. Best answer: they find ‘selective historical perspective’ and enjoy the films.
Side Bar: For those fuming over vintage Indian depictions in film, or just someone who appreciates great TV, seek-out “Northern Exposure” episode entitled “Things Become Extinct (’92),” when Ed Chigliak (Darren Burrows) crosses paths with Indian artist and former movie extra, Ira Wingfeather (Bryson Liberty) who offers wonderful insights into his past life in Tinseltown and then where he thinks everything is headed.
And where do the Nations stand on Indian monikers?
Getting a clear read isn’t easy. Example: North Dakota’s recent wrangle over the former UND “Fighting Sioux” logo. Spirit Lake tribe “endorsed the name,” Standing Rock elite nixed it while they denied members a vote (“North” / Fox (AP) / 2-8-12).
As for the rendition itself (Redskins design), by commercial art standards it appears as good or better than any corporate logo out there and probably most those on the drawing board.
Is this the last stand for Indian monikers? They’ve been getting “worked on” pretty good for a long time now. Not many remain. Allegory here as you see fit (Crazy Horse & Custer).
I don’t think Redskins’ opponents think much of sport.
I don’t think they understand the cross-cultural, common bond that pro-Indians & sport fans likely share in feelings of competition, loyalty, even spirituality, something akin to the sentiment felt by fans upon learning the Chicago Blackhawks had made that rare gesture of goodwill in extending to their Boston rivals a heart-felt “Thank You” (Globe) after taking Cup 2013 (“Hawks” / ESPN-Boston / 6-28).
“When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer (Wonder ‘72),” or, stay stubborn and make sure the rest of us suffer.
NFL Hunch Line
Photo Credit: Chief Wolf Robe / Cheyenne / F. Rinehart / 1898 / Boston PL / wc.cc
About the Author
Written by Steven Keys
A native of the old Northwest Territory (IL), my wife and I have lived in four Midwestern states and Arizona. Today we live in Duluth, Georgia. I have a history / legal background.