Redskins: The Clock Is Now Ticking on Changing the Name

It’s an awkward fact of life in Washington, DC, that we are home to both the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Washington Redskins. One attempts to preserve the Native American cultures that weren’t eradicated by conquest; the other is both a symbol and result of the same eradication. These two worlds collided this past week when the museum hosted a day-long symposium about Native American sports nicknames. In a packed auditorium, panelists and audience members took the local team to task, calling their name “ugly,” “offensive” and “a racist slur.” Former Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the only Native American senator in US history, said from the stage, ”If you want [your mascot] to be a savage—use your own picture.” Not one person either in the audience or the crowd defended the use of "Redskin,” because, as one fan of the team said to me, “it really is defending the indefensible.”

Despite repeated requests from the museum, the Redskins refused to send anyone to make the case publicly that the name is anything other than a self-evident slur. Like their owner, the ham-fisted, rabbit-eared Dan Snyder, they celebrate the moniker only when no one is present to challenge them. Since purchasing the franchise in 1999, Snyder has maintained that the name "Redskins” was a “tribute,” as former team Vice President Karl Swanson said, “derived from the Native American tradition for warriors to daub their bodies with red clay before battle.” This is not an argument they felt confident making at the Smithsonian because the laughter would have cracked the Capitol dome. The team name was the brainchild not of an anthropologist who advised on the fierce honor of the “red-clay warriors” but of team founder, segregationist and Dixiecrat George Preston Marshall.

Senator Campbell said that he asks people, “How would you feel if the team was called the Washington Darkies?” George Preston Marshall would have felt euphoric because he adored minstrel shows and fetishized the confederacy. As Thomas G. Smith wrote in his book Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins, when Marshall proposed marriage to his future wife Corrine, he did so “amidst fragrant honeysuckle while a group of African American performers [dressed like house-slave extras from Gone with the Wind] sang ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,’” a song that speaks lovingly of how slaves love to see affection between their “Massa and Missus.” The Redskins were named for the minstrelsy Marshall adored and, as the southernmost team in the league at the time, to appeal to Dixie. They were also, surprise, the last team in the NFL to integrate.

If you know this background, it’s risible to hear NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell say, “I think Dan Snyder and the organization have made it very clear that they are proud of that name and that heritage, and I think the fans are, too.” There is nothing to be proud of in this “heritage,” unless your tastes tend toward the antebellum South. In a league that’s 70 percent African-American yet couldn’t seem to find any coaches or executives of color to hire this off-season, the Redskins are also a reminder, as William Faulkner wrote, that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Despite this awful, seemingly entrenched history, there is change on the immediate horizon in the face and play of the team’s star quarterback, Robert Griffin III. RGIII hasn’t said a word about the team’s name but his very presence represents the greatest threat to Marshall’s legacy. Griffin is recovering from knee surgery after the finest statistical season of any rookie quarterback in the history of the game. The team won their division and, with the mercury-quick Griffin under center, also became must-see TV. Beyond just the swooning local sports writers, DC figures like Maureen Dowd, Marco Rubio, and President Obama all giggled with glee in RGIII’s glow. If the 23-year-old wonder said tomorrow that the team should be called the Washington Cuddly Snuggles, it would happen. But even if RGIII never says a thing, the better this team gets and the closer they come to the Super Bowl, the more this name goes from a quietly uttered embarrassment to a full blown national conversation. Do you think the NFL and Roger Goodell, on top of answering questions about concussions, lawsuits and the dwindling number of black coaches, want to talk about anti-Native racism?

Even if Dan Snyder doesn’t want it to happen, it’s going to happen. As former Redskin Tre Johnson said, “It’s an ethnically insensitive moniker that offends an entire race of displaced people. That should be reason enough to change it.” It should be, but if you know Dan Snyder, you know it will take more. Maybe an RGIII shall lead us. Or maybe, as Curtis Mayfield advised about the very civil rights movement George Preston Marshall so vehemently opposed, we’re just going to have to “keep on pushin.” Either way, you might want to put your new RGIII jersey in mothballs because in the future the only place you’ll find Redskins gear will be behind glass; maybe at an exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian.

7 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Offensive yes, but does the team care?

The strangest thing about Marshall and the team isn't his own racism, but that his given reason for choosing "Redskins" as a name was due to his concurrent coach's Sioux ethnicity. But while the mascot name is certainly racist enough, I'm not seeing any new or urgent pressure on Snyder. Native Americans have protested the team consistently for decades now, and even taken legal action, and yet it hasn't amounted to enough collective outrage to shame the franchise, or the league from above, to change it.

As for Griffin's "threat to Marshall’s legacy" and potential to elevate the team name "from a quietly uttered embarrassment to a full blown national conversation," and again, I don't see the novelty. The Redskins have made it to 5 Super Bowls in franchise history, so it's not like they've avoided national relevance. If RG3 takes the team to the Super Bowl and wins its MVP he would be the second African American quarterback to do so with the same organization.

Good riddance if the franchise ever banishes the nickname into history, but I don't see what makes the recent symposium any different than the last 80 years worth of criticism. If you want to get to the NFL or one of its teams, you hit them in the sponsors and networks.


they should be the washington whiteys? washington wankers, that should appeal to the British/ international crowd the NFL has been courting for some years now. other suggestions: capital claps, d.c. dingleberry, turnpike trannies...the beltway boogers. i mean, if they like to named something disturbing we should help them make the transition...just saying...

"Minstrelsy?" I Don't Think So!

"The Redskins were named for the minstrelsy Marshall adored and, as the southernmost team in the league at the time, to appeal to Dixie."

Dave, don't you ever feel the need to do your homework? The team began play in the NFL in 1932 as the Boston Braves, named after the baseball team of the same name, and playing its home games at Braves Field. The next season the team moved to Fenway Park, and were renamed the Boston Redskins so as to invoke the names of BOTH the Braves AND the Red Sox baseball teams. They played for four years as the Boston Redskins before moving to Washington DC in 1937.

As Casey Stengel would have said, "You can look it up!"

Washington Slave Owners

Several years ago Dave had a contest to name the newly-minted Nationals. One of my entries was the Slave Owners. This column proves I got jobbed!
Dave -where is the justice? I want my t-shirt!

well really

all they have to do is add "potatoes" under the REDSKINS logo in small print and everyone would be happy. Not even Obama himself is offended by redskin potatoes.

NFL Expansion Team

In honor of the Asian population that contributed so significantly to building the west coast, I propose we open an NFL expansion franchise in LA and name them the Los Angeles Yellow Peril. It sounds tough, don't you think?

Burgundy and Gold

Brillant as always Dave. I saw you on a show with Brian Mitchell a while back and I noticed much like Rick Walker you never said 'Redskins' but refered to the team as the Burgundy and Gold, did Mitchell comment on this and does he ever question the usuage of Redskins himself?

7 Reader Comments | Add a comment

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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
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