Washington NFL team name change shows this was always about more than just a name

Playing Native American, war-whooping and donning a headdress unites fans of all races in a ritual of mockery that remains acceptable for millions.
Image: Washington fans cheer during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at FedExField in Landover, Maryland.
Washington fans cheer during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at FedExField in Landover, Maryland.Patrick McDermott / Getty Images file
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By Simon Moya-Smith, writer, activist and professor of new media

UPDATE (July 13, 2020, 9:00 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated throughout to reflect the announcement Monday that Washington's NFL team will change its name.

After decades of dragging its feet and denying there is any kind of problem at all, the Washington NFL team began this month to slowly come around to the right side of history. After “a thorough review” earlier this month, the team announced on July 13 that the name will change — although to what remains unclear.

In a short press release sent when the process began this month, the team’s front office failed to specify which events “around the country” had prompted its examination, so we will just have to assume the brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and America’s metastasizing racism problem were the catalyst.

While there is a baseline understanding that the name is problematic, Americans still don’t understand why it needs to change.

The name of the Washington NFL team is and always has been extremely offensive. But despite decades of criticism, little progress has been made. This suggests that while there is a baseline understanding that the name is problematic, Americans still don’t understand why it needed to change. President Donald Trump perfectly highlighted the need for better education on this topic, weighing in via Twitter on July 6 and claiming that a name change was being pushed because it was "politically correct."

Such a response may be sadly predictable from this president, but it is unequivocally ignorant. Native Americans as mascots in general have been an issue for decades; it’s just that in the 1960s and the '70s, there was no social media or internet to help promote and amplify Native voices and protests.

Fifty years ago, Natives had to solely rely on newspapers, radio and local broadcast news — basically, white men — to get our message out there. Now, we have the ability to speak for ourselves. (For a good example of this ongoing discourse, open Twitter and type in the #NativeTwitter hashtag.)

But why is this story still so important? Why, in other words, is this about more than just a team name?

Because, for one thing, it’s not just a name at all. In fact, the name is a dictionary-defined racial slur. The slur and logo do not exist in a vacuum, and continually prompt fans to engage in really racist behavior in the stands: redface, faux-feather headdresses, fake drums, fake long hair and braids, war whoops, a blade impaling the plastic-rubber head of what is supposed to be a Native American, etc.

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Imagine being a Native kid and having to be exposed to this wretched, racist nastiness. Indeed, there are empirical studies that prove Native mascots and logos harm the mental health and stability of kids, and not just related to the Washington NFL team either. We shouldn’t let the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, etc., off the hook. Native mascots are the dehumanization and commodification of a still living, still persecuted race of people.

In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate abolishment of mascots because of the empirical data that demonstrates how they harm children.

“These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians,” then-APA President Ronald F. Levant said at the time. “These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students."

And that message, literally, is that it’s OK and even good to glorify the killing of Native Americans.

Years ago, I unearthed a news clip from the Atchison Daily Champion in Atchison, Kansas, dated Oct. 9, 1885, that reported that there was a $250 reward for “redskins,” i.e. Native scalps. The headline: “An Indian Hunt.”

These scalps, or “redskins,” weren’t always taken from the bodies of Native men after a massacre or battle. White men would barbarically cut the flesh and hair from any dead Native — man, woman, child.

I’ve been writing and ranting about these and other disturbing facts on this subject for years. Truly, with all my heart, I wish this piece will be the last thing I ever have to the write on the matter. Unlikely.

Now, the team seems ready to finally do the right thing, change the name and drop any references to Native Americans. (There were reports earlier that owner Dan Snyder was open to possibly dropping the name but keeping Native imagery as part of the logo — that's not going to cut it.). And I hope other professional sports teams, such as the Chiefs and the Blackhawks, and universities like the Florida State Seminoles, and schools like the Lamar Savages in Lamar, Colorado, will do the same.

Racism in America is a beloved, time-honored tradition for a big chunk of the American population, and playing Native American, painting your face, war-whooping, donning a headdress — it unites fans of all races in a ritual of mockery that, for all the progress we’ve made elsewhere, remains acceptable for millions. Indeed, we have a long way to go.

Snyder, who was in the past quoted as saying he’d “NEVER” change the team name, has now reversed course. Imagine the message that this sends to other teams and universities and businesses who still defend their Native mascot and imagery even against the empirical data. Think of all the kids this will hopefully help and protect, of the all racist behavior that will (again, hopefully) cease in bleachers and stadiums across the country. Think of all the healing that may finally be able to begin. As it’s been said again and again, if not now, when?

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