Based in the Bay Area, Ian covers sports, immigration, and Latin America. His work has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, Wired, and Slate, among others. Got a comment or a tip? Email him: igordon [at] motherjones [dot] com.
On October 30, representatives from the Oneida Nation met with NFL higher-ups in New York City to discuss the Washington pro football team's offensive name—another in a series of moves to pressure the franchise to change its name and mascot. After the meeting, Oneida representative Ray Halbritter said, "Believe me, we're not going away."
But with everyone from President Obama to Bob Costas weighing in on the [Redacted], it's worth remembering that this issue didn't start when owner Dan Snyder said that'd he'd "never" change the name—and that it's not limited to one team. Here are some key moments in the history of racially insensitive sports mascots:
The word "redskin" first appears in a Merriam-Webster dictionary. Eight years later, Webster's Collegiate Dictionary notes that the term is "often contemptuous."
The first incarnation of baseball's Cleveland Indians forms. "There will be no real Indians on the roster, but the name will recall fine traditions," the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote at the time.
Oorang Dog Kennels owner Walter Lingo founds the Oorang Indians, an NFL team made up entirely of Native Americans and coached by Jim Thorpe. The team's popular halftime shows feature tomahawk-throwing demonstrations and performances from Lingo's prized Airedale terriers.
The Duluth Kelleys pro football team changes its name to the Duluth Eskimos.
The Boston Braves changes its name to the Boston [Redacted]. According to the Boston Herald, "the change was made to avoid confusion with the Braves baseball team and the team that is to be coached by an Indian." (The coach, Lone Star Dietz, might not have been Native American.)
The Zulu Cannibal Giants, an all-black baseball team that played in war paint and grass skirts, barnstorms around the country. Six years later, the Ethiopian Clowns continue the tradition of mixing baseball with comedy to appeal to white audiences.
Stewart Udall, John F. Kennedy's interior secretary, threatens to take away the Washington football team's federally owned home stadium due to owner George Preston Marshall's refusal to sign a black player. Despite support from members of the American Nazi Party, Marshall begrudgingly signs a handful of black players for the 1962 season, making Washington the last team in the NFL to integrate.
The Philadelphia Warriors basketball team moves to San Francisco, changing its Native American caricature logo to a plain headdress. In 1969, the imagery is dropped altogether in favor of a Golden Gate Bridge logo.
The Washington [Redacted] registers its name and logo for trademarks.
St. Bonaventure University drops the name Brown Squaws for its women's teams when, as one former player put it, "a Seneca chief and clan mothers came over from the reservation and asked us to stop using the name, because it meant vagina." Seventeen years later, men's and women's team names are officially changed from the Brown Indians to the Bonnies.
Washington [Redacted] fan Zema Williams, who is African American, begins appearing at home games in a replica headdress. "Chief Zee" becomes an unofficial mascot. "The older people been watching me so long, they don't even say 'Indian,'" Williams told the Washington Post. "They say, 'Injun. There's my Injun.'" He still goes to games in his regalia.
Syracuse University drops its Saltine Warrior mascot—a costumed undergrad—and iconography after Native American students call the character racist and degrading.
The Atlanta Braves retire "Chief Noc-A-Homa," a man in Native American dress who would emerge from a tepee in the left field bleachers to dance after a home run. Levi Walker, a member of the Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and the last man to play Noc-A-Homa, said the Braves were "overly sensitive about being politically correct."
Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser writes that "it's only a matter of time until 'Redskins' is gone." He suggests the team change its name to the Pigskins. (In 2012, a Washington City Paperpoll asks readers to vote for a new team name; "Pigskins" wins with 50 percent of the vote.)
Marquette University and St. John's University both change their Native American mascots. Marquette's Warriors become the Golden Eagles; St. John's Redmen become the Red Storm.
The Redskins unveil a special mascot for the 1995 Pro Bowl. It is quickly retired.
The Miami (Ohio) University Redskins become the RedHawks.
The National Congress of American Indians commissions a poster featuring a Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo baseball cap alongside those from the (imaginary) New York Jews and San Francisco Chinamen. The ad goes viral in 2013 when the [Redacted] controversy heats up again.
The University of Northern Colorado's satirically named Fighting Whites intramural basketball team uses $100,000 from merchandise sales to create a scholarship fund for minority students.
The NCAA grants Florida State University a waiver to continue using its Seminoles nickname and iconography largely due to support from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which maintains a friendly relationship with the university.
A leaked Atlanta Braves batting-practice cap features the decades-old "Screaming Savage" logo. After a public outcry, it never makes it to stores.
[Redacted] owner Dan Snyder tells USA Today that he'll never change his team's name: "NEVER—you can use caps." Ten members of Congress, including Native American Tom Cole (R-Okla.), sign a letter urging Snyder to drop the R-word: "Native Americans throughout the country consider the term 'redskin' a racial, derogatory slur akin to the 'N-word.'" NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responds that the team's name is "a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect."
A resolution by the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes states that "the use of the term 'Redskins' as the name of a franchise is derogatory and racist" and that "the term perpetuates harmful stereotypes, even if it is not intentional, and continues the damaging practice of relegating Native people to the past and as a caricature."
Appearing on a DC sports radio program, Goodell says of the [Redacted] name, "If one person is offended, we have to listen."
Obama tells the Associated Press, "If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team—even if it had a storied history—that was offending a sizable group of people, I'd think about changing it." In a letter to season ticket holders, Snyder insists that the name "was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor." And, at the end of the month, the Oneida ask to meet with all 32 NFL owners during Super Bowl week:
ThinkProgress publishes an exhaustive account of the fight to rebrand the slur, revealing that the Washington team consulted with Republican advisers—including GOP messaging consultant Frank Luntz, former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer , and former Virginia governor and US Sen. George Allen—on how to handle criticism of the team's name. Then, during a pre-Super Bowl press conference, Goodell is asked if he would ever call a Native American the name of Washington's team. Goodell hedges, saying the name has been "presented in a way that honors Native Americans."
Meanwhile, the National Congress of American Indians releases this video the week of the big game:
In a letter to "Everyone in Our Redskins Nation," Snyder claims that, after visiting 26 tribal reservations in 20 states, "it's plain to see they need action, not words." So a change to the team's name is finally in order? Nope. Instead, Snyder announces the creation of Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, whose mission is "to provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities." The letter touts a number of projects already completed, including distributing 3,000 cold-weather jackets to tribes during the bitter winter and purchasing a new backhoe for the Omaha Tribe in Nebraska. The team's name, however, will remain the same.
Read the full letter here:
The US Patent and Trademark Office canceled six Redskins trademarks, ruling that the name is "disparaging to Native Americans." (Federal law prohibits the protection of offensive and/or disparaging language.) The decision marked the second time that the team lost its trademark protections, though the first ruling, made in 1999, was overturned in federal court in 2003. The Redskins will certainly appeal the Patent Office's decision; during that time—which could last years—the team will retain its trademark protection.
Read the full ruling here, and be sure to check out some of the images presented as evidence by the plaintiffs, including this one:
In the ongoing debate over the name of Washington's pro football team, folks on both sides have argued about the relative offensiveness of the word "redskin" over time. Team owner Dan Synder insists the R-word is a long-standing term of respect for Native Americans, saying in a letter to season ticket holders that "the name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor." Yet dusting off the old dictionary suggests otherwise.
In the current edition (the 11th) of the best-sellingMerriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, redskin is defined as an "American Indian"—with the label "usually offensive" added for clarification. But when did that label get added—and how has Merriam-Webster defined the word over time?
According to Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer and Merriam-Webster editor at large, "redskin" first made its way into an M-W dictionary in 1890, when its unabridged International defined the word in this way:
A common appellation for a North American Indian—so called from the color of their skin.
That was just the beginning. Here's how Merriam-Webster's definition changed subtly over time:
1898: A different line of M-W dictionaries, the Collegiate, adds an important distinction in its first edition:
A North American Indian; —often contemptuous.
1909: The unabridged New International drops the "so called from the color of their skin" from the 1890 edition.
Dan Snyder, the owner of Washington's pro football team, wrote a letter to season ticket holders yesterday to once again defend the franchise's racist name. Snyder, who in May said he'd "never" change the moniker, focused on the team's long history—mentioning three times that it has been in existence for 81 years—and argued that it "was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor." He also argued, in a bit of marketing wizardry, that the name "is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect."
Snyder went beyond lauding the positive symbolism of the [Redacted] brand, though. Like ESPN columnist Rick Reilly before him, Snyder cited a poll from the Annenberg Public Policy Center that found that 90 percent of Native Americans didn't find the team's name offensive. He also pointed to a Richmond Times-Dispatch story in which a writer contacted three Native American tribal leaders in Virginia; none of them was offended by the name.
"I've listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name," Snyder wrote. "But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too."
Researchers examine the brain of a dead ex-high school football player who died in his 20s.
Both ESPN the Magazineand Sports Illustrated published excerpts today from Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada's League of Denial, their much-anticipated investigation into the NFL's efforts to downplay football's link to devastating brain trauma. The book, which comes out next Tuesday, takes a look at the Big Tobacco-like tactics the league used over two decades to allay public concerns about concussions and long-term injury.
Here are three ways the Fainaru brothers argue that the NFL attempted to downplay the risks of the game:
1. Cherry-picking data in NFL-sponsored research: At a 2007 concussion summit meant to update new commissioner Roger Goodell, neuropsychologist Bill Barr, who had worked for the New York Jets, blasted the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee for using only select data in a study that concluded that NFL players were quick to recover from concussions:
"I said that the data collection is all biased," Barr said. "And I showed slides of that. Basically I pointed out that we had been obtaining baselines on players for 10 years, and when you look at the study it only included a small amount of data. My calculations were that their published studies only included 15 percent of the available data. Let's put it this way: There were nearly 5,000 baseline studies that had been obtained in that 10-year period. And only 655 were published in the study."
2. Co-opting a reputable journal to publish questionable research: After the creation of the MTBI committee, the NFL used the influential medical journal Neurosurgery (whose editor in chief consulted for the New York Giants and whom "some people around the NFL also considered…something of a jock sniffer") to publish its work:
The league used that journal, which some researchers would come to ridicule as the "Journal of No NFL Concussions," to publish an unprecedented series of papers, several of which were rejected by peer reviewers and editors and later disavowed even by some of their own authors. The papers portrayed NFL players as superhuman and impervious to brain damage. They included such eye-popping assertions as "Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis."
3. Blasting independent researchers: After neuropathologist Ann McKee (subject of a terrific 2012 Grantland profile) told reporters in 2009 that the brain of a dead 45-year-old ex-NFL player named Tom McHale looked like that of a 72-year-old former boxer—adding, "I have never seen this disease in the general population, only in these athletes"—she got a call from Ira Casson, co-chair of the MTBI committee, who wanted her to travel to the league's New York City offices to present her work. The meeting was antagonistic:
To many in the room, Casson seemed especially combative. "Casson interrupted the most," said Colonel Jaffee [the national director of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center]. "He was…at times mocking. These were pretty compelling neuropathological findings, so to outright deny there could be a relationship, I didn't think [Casson] was really making an honest assessment of the evidence."
…McKee had experienced heated debate before, but this, she thought, was almost personal. "I felt like they weren't really listening," she said, "like they had their heads in the sand." Casson, Pellman and others bombarded McKee and Perl with alternative theories: steroids, nutritional supplements, high blood pressure, diabetes. Finally McKee threw up her hands. "You are delusional," she told them.
A PBS Frontline documentary, also called League of Denial, will air Tuesday at 8 p.m. EDT. (It is the result of a yearlong collaboration between ESPN, where the Fainaru brothers work, and Frontline—a joint project that ESPN recently pulled out of, allegedly due to NFL pressure.) Here's the trailer:
ESPN's Rick Reilly—onetime Sports Illustrated great, 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year, and all-time GIF magnet—doesn't think Washington, DC's pro football team should change its name. Why? For starters, there's this 2004 poll, in which 90 percent of Native Americans surveyed said they didn't find the name offensive. On top of that, Reilly reports that his father-in-law, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, doesn't think there's anything wrong with it, and nor do people at three majority American Indian high schools whose sports teams play under the same name.
But there's another reason gnawing at Reilly: He doesn't like that paternalistic white journos are trying to cram change down Americans'—and Native Americans'—throats. As he wrote yesterday:
The 81-year-old Washington Redskins name is falling, and everybody better get out of the way. For the majority of Native Americans who don't care, we'll care for them. For the Native Americans who haven't asked for help, we're glad to give it to them.
Trust us. We know what's best. We'll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again.
Kind of like a reservation.
That's right: Kind of like a reservation. For a thorough takedown of Reilly's argument, take a look at this response by The Nation's Dave Zirin. (We're just glad Reilly didn't write his piece in verse.)
In the meantime, here's a list of folks who have decided to no longer refer to the Washington [Redacted] by name. We'll update it as more publications and journalists sign on.
UPDATE, THURSDAY, OCTOBER 10, 2013: In a column for the Indian Country Today Media Network, Rick Reilly's father-in-law, Bob Burns, says Reilly misquoted him:
You can imagine my dismay when I saw my name and words used to defend the racist Washington Redskins name. My son-in-law, ESPN's Rick Reilly, completely misunderstood the conversation we had, quoting me as saying "the whole issue is so silly. The name just doesn't bother me much. It's an issue that shouldn't be an issue, not with all the problems we've got in this country."
But that’s not what I said.
What I actually said is that "it's silly in this day and age that this should even be a battle -- if the name offends someone, change it."
…Let me be clear: The racial slur "redskins" is not okay with me. It's never going to be okay with me. It's inappropriate, damaging and racist.
In the memory of our Blackfeet relatives, it's time to change the name. That would honor us.