Why NFL’s Washington Redskins needs renaming


WASHINGTON, November 7, 2013 —  The escalating conflict between the Washington Redskins football franchise, its owners and fans, and the growing community of concerned citizens, tribal leaders and District of Columbia City Councilmembers who want the football team to change its name is reaching new heights.

In preparation for the District of Columbia’s City Council vote this week on whether the city’s football team should change its name – a decision that is more symbolic than jurisdictionally binding – the Redskins Football management team asked their fans to lobby City Council members on #RedskinsPride. The football team’s owners have shown that they’re willing to pull out all the stops, including the hiring of a crisis manager, to deal with the name-change conflict.

Investors are mindful of the costs incurred with changing a team’s branding, logo, paraphernalia and equipment. Collectors are also naturally concerned that the value of merchandise will drop, though history shows that antiques — even race-laden ones — increase, not decrease, in value after a product ban.

If the District of Columbia is serious about rebranding the city’s football team, these costs could ultimately be offset by the City Council; much like the city fronted $700 million in taxpayer dollars for the Washington Nationals baseball team and may front another $150 million in taxpayer dollars for DC United soccer team, according to DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

One wonders, then, why there is such unwillingness by the owners to change the name. As many have recently pointed out, the lack of sensitivity in this town to the racist moniker of our local NFL football team is confounding.

The opponents — or at least those who are not doing everything they can to correct this wrong – include Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).  While once a proponent of a rename, suggesting that we should “do the right thing,” the Mayor has avoided the issue, claiming that it’s a federal problem.  Meanwhile, the general manager of the Redskins, Bruce Allen, refuses to consider a rename — saying “there’s nothing that we feel is offensive” — and owner Dan Snyder has shown no inclination to change the name.

There is no excuse for inaction. In light of the District’s current race realities — from how geographically and economically divided Washington is along racial lines, to how it poorly processed racism on the Metro as evidenced by anti-Muslim advertisements that left WMATA with an offense it was ill-equipped to manage — few of these inequities can be as quickly corrected as the Washington Redskins racist moniker.

If this football fiasco regarded a different race or religion, it likely would attract  more public protest. America has a discriminatory political pecking order that allows some prejudice to continue while others are prohibited.

The American public would never allow, for example, a Washington Blackskins or a Washington Yellowskins. Nor would a baseball team called the Cleveland Jews be appropriate. Yet, we somehow justify keeping Native Americans at the bottom of societal barrel, treating them in ways that would never be tolerated  for another race or religion.

With every ticket purchased, every shirt worn, every beer bought and every mascot marauded, this town stands idly by while prejudice and discrimination carry on. Standing against this tide of perpetual oppression, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian hosted a daylong symposium this year entitled “Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports.”

The Redskins’ name, not unlike the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, was rightly criticized as racist and demeaning.  Symposium panelists were not calling for anything insurmountable, however, like an apology for the genocidal treatment of tribes. They were simply calling for a change in how sports teams are branded, an effort on which states like Oregon and Washington are leading the way by banning Native American mascots.

We should follow their lead, leaving a legacy in the nation’s capital for how professional sports should be played. The discussion by the District’s City Council, then, is an opportunity for this city to do the right thing and further the dialogue on this misappropriated Washington mascot. Let’s hope it does. Until then, racism plays on.

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Michael Shank
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington DC. Michael is also Adjunct Faculty and a Board Member at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Board Member at Communities Without Boundaries International, Senior Fellow at the French American Global Forum and the Just Jobs Network, and Associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict. Prior to joining FCNL, Michael served for four years as a congressional staffer, working as US Congressman Michael Honda's Senior Policy Advisor and Communications Director. Michael's career over the past 20 years has involved UN, government and non-governmental organizations in the US, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America, as an adviser on diplomatic, economic, energy, and environmental security and policy initiatives. Michael's Ph.D. from George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution focused on Climate Conflict.