Redskin. It is the name of our cherished home team. It is also an ethnic slur as ugly as anything in the English language. Say it loud enough in a bar in the Black Hills of South Dakota or Salt River, Arizona, and you are leaving with a punch in the mouth, and for good reason. In the old days, trappers would kill a Native American, slice some bloody skin off the top of his head, and then they'd have a "redskin" to go with the deerskin, bearskin and other skins in their pouch.
Yet in a town where 40 years ago Martin Luther King shared his dream to live in a world where the "color of one's skin" would be irrelevant, the name Redskin brands our area.
Redskin, of course, is more than a name. After years of wins, losses and a trunk full of Super Bowl Glory, it is the is the closest thing to a common culture we have in the city. I found this out when I moved here years ago and saw an entire block in North East DC where houses were painted Burgundy and Gold. This team is our sun around which all other sports must gravitate.
When they are on TV I am not hard to find. I am parked on the couch with my man John's infamous homemade bean and cheese dip watching Spurrier's squad. I may be more "Slouches on Sofa" than "Dances with Wolves," but as much as we may love football, it's time to face the fact that the Redskin name is racist and has got to go.
Most fans are in no way racist, and I believe would support a name change.
But the pressure from the Redskins organization and their minions on talk radio to protect their brand is very organized and very real. "It's just a name," they say. "This is about preserving tradition."
The sensitive new-age line from Redskins' Vice President Karl Swanson is that the name was "derived from the Native American tradition for warriors to daub their bodies with red clay before battle."
This is their argument: that the name must stay because it was actually born of a deep cultural respect for "redskin warriors".
Since Swanson and company brought it up, let's examine the roots of the Washington football "tradition". The great Redskin patriarch who brought the team to D.C. in 1937 was a man named George Preston Marshall. Marshall, in the words of the late sports writing legend Shirley Povich, "was widely considered one of pro football's greatest innovators and its leading bigot."Marshall's Skins were the last team to integrate in the entire NFL. Povich once wrote famously that "the Redskins colors are burgundy, gold and Caucasian."
Marshall finally integrated the team in 1962 only when the Kennedy Administration's Interior Secretary, Stewart Udall, issued an ultimatum: sign an African-American player or be denied use of the new government financed 54,000-seat D.C. Stadium. Marshall responded by making Ernie Davis, Syracuse's all-American running back, his No. 1 draft choice. One problem: Davis's response was a forthright "I won't play for that S.O.B." Davis was traded, to Cleveland, for all-pro Bobby Mitchell.
Marshall's racism was more than just was more than just bad ideas. It was the material foundation upon which the Redskins empire was built. He had brought his football team to Washington with a plan to make them "the South's team."He signed TV contracts with stations in Southern cities, and he drafted players mostly from Southern colleges. The team, once again to quote Povich, "became the Confederates of the NFL." In fact, in the original version of the ever-present fight song "Hail to the Redskins," the line "Fight for Old D.C." was "Fight for Old Dixie."
In the face of this history, it is hard to imagine Marshall as a student of the cultural intricacies of the red-clay warriors. Far more likely, he was merely marketing a minstrel show in shoulder pads, preying on bigotry for big bucks.
Critics may call this "overly sensitive," but in 2002, when a group of Native Americans and non-Indians at the University of Northern Colorado turned the tables and named their intramural basketball team the Fighting Whites and created a stereotypical mascot-a 1950s-style white man in a suit and tie carrying a briefcase-the "anti-racial sensitivity crowd" freaked out. The Fighting Whites and their tongue in cheek slogan "Every Thang's Gonna be all White" became a national debate.
I don't know about you, but there always needs to be time during periods of war and recession for debates that involve intramural basketball. But even the hullabaloo over the Fighting Whites was a function of the Redskins and their ilk feeling the heat.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Patent and
Trademark office ruled in favor of seven Native Americans who filed a complaint against the Redskins in 1992. The board ordered the cancellation of the federal registration of seven Redskin trademarks, under a 1946 law that says names cannot be protected if they are "disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous or disreputable."
They are absolutely right: it is contemptible and an absolute scandal. That is why we, here at the Prince George's County Post, do not use the name "Redskins" on our sports page. But it will take far more than that to exorcise the ghost of George Preston Marshall.
Washington football is Sonny Jurgenson, "The Diesel" John Riggins, Darrel Green, Doug Williams, Smurfs, Hogs, and the great Joe Gibbs. There is no reason why it also has to be Dixie, minstrelsy, and gutter racism.
Therefore we at the Prince George's Post are starting a contest, the winner receiving little more than peace of mind and a small place in history, to rename the Washington Football Team. Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The winner will be announced (when else?) on Columbus Day.
Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to email@example.com.
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Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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