Native American imagery isn’t uncommon in the names of sports teams in the United States, but one team in particular has attracted unprecedented media attention in recent years, and this football season could prove to be a tipping point. The Washington-based football team doesn’t just use a racial slur as its name: it also uses a racist caricature as a mascot. Finally, it would appear that fans, sports writers, Native Americans and supporters have had enough, and the Washington team may finally be forced to change its name.
You may have noticed I chose not to spell out the team’s name. I’m joining a growing list of journalists and publications who prefer to refer to it as “the Washington football team” or “Dan Snyder’s team” (in a reference to its recalcitrant owner) rather than using a racial slur in my reporting. As a matter of policy, Slate, the Washington City Paper, and several other news organizations are refusing to print the team name, while more and more journalists are pledging not to use it (Christine Brennan at USA Today just joined our ranks).
Not using the name is a mark of deference and respect to members of the Native American community who have been steadily protesting the use of racist team names and mascots across the United States, including in the case of the Washington team. They argue that it’s high time to drop racist imagery from both pro and amateur sports, and growing numbers of teams are starting to agree. High schools are changing team names and mascots, some pro teams are weighing shifts of their own, and the media is beginning to pay attention to the fight.
In the case of the Washington football team, it’s an uphill battle. It’s not just that the team has a tradition dating back to 1933, but that its owner, Dan Snyder, has made it crisply clear that he has no intent of even considering a name change. The National Football League doesn’t appear eager to pressure him, even though critics argue it will sit on the wrong side of history in this case if it doesn’t act to push Snyder to consider it. The Commissioner has claimed that it’s an “homage” to Native American history and culture, an argument that comes as a surprise to many Native critics who don’t see much of an homage in racist stereotyping.
If the NFL won’t change his mind, and if protestors at games across the nation won’t change his mind, maybe a new campaign by the Oneida Nation will. Its “Change the Mascot!” campaign will be rolling out in every city the Washington team visits this football season, with radio ads and other outreach to educate people about why the name is offensive, and why it needs to change.
As multiple ongoing lawsuits illustrate, the team’s name is racist, and Native Americans have mustered an impressive array of evidence to support their case, showing how the word is used as a racial slur even today in the United States and linking it with historic oppression of indigenous people. For Native people, especially Native Americans who just want to relax and enjoy some football, the name is a constant reminder of a period of immense suffering and pain in their history; one in which their lands were stolen, they were pushed into reservation environments, and they were exterminated by colonizers.
Even some fans of the team are starting to protest the name, lobbying around the name change with petitions and supportive gestures of their own. When even your fans think your name is racist and repugnant, it’s safe to say you have an image problem. So, will Dan Snyder change the name of his Washington football team?
Photo credit: Keith Allison.