On Saturday, my distinguished colleague Kiel published an article “debunking” five popular myths about the Redskins name controversy. As you may know, I am one of the agitators Kiel is addressing. I think the name Redskins is racially insensitive, a relic of a bygone era. In addressing common “myths”, Kiel argues that the intent behind the team’s name was not malicious, but celebratory. That argument- a contentious one at best- is largely irrelevant to me; the name is still antiquated regardless of its origins.
Time to bust some myth-busting:
“MYTH: Fan logo alterations such as the Indian drinking or facepalming were meant to offend Native Americans.
FACT: Alterations made to the Redskins logo which shows the Native American facepalming was in fact created by ESPN during 2009 to mock the Redskins horrendous 4-12 record. Additionally, the edits made of the Indian drinking were made by fans to not mock Native Americans who have drinking problems, but to express how to deal with a team that bad.”
What fans do with Photoshop is irrelevant to the argument about whether the Washington Redskins should change its name. I’m sure you could find offensive alterations to the Patriots logo if you scour the internet long enough. The lawsuits currently under review by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board do not address fan art. The issue is whether the franchise should have trademark exclusivity rights over a brand that is disparaging to a significant population of people. What ESPN does in its graphics department is besides the point.
With that in mind, I’m pretty sure I have never heard anyone make the argument that the facepalm logo was meant to offend Native Americans. I think we all understood that the team was woefully bad. That is a classic straw man argument, a distraction from the real issue at hand.
The drinking logo, while still not related to the argument about whether the Redskins should change names, is pretty distasteful. Perhaps the intent was to show fan displeasure with the team’s record. Only the person who created the picture will know for sure. Still, the picture does evoke a prevalent racial stereotype in our society. It is not a wild leap of logic to assume that some people would make that connection. It’s poor form.
Though again, let me reiterate: that logo is not relevant to any argument in favor of changing the team’s name.
“MYTH: The name Redskins offends the majority of the Native American population.
FACT: In 2004 the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey found that only 9% of Native Americans found the name Redskins offensive and or racist. Native Americans who speak out in support of the Redskins have been kept out of public eye so only those against it have a voice.”
Of the arguments Kiel puts forward, this would be the most compelling. However, there are a number of flaws with using this data point as a justification for keeping the team name. First, it is based on a single sampling of people (768 to be exact) taken over the course of nearly a year. Polling data is not nearly as accurate when it is drawn out over a long period of time. Think of polling that takes place during elections- it almost always occurs over a two to three day window. The NAES took place from October 7th, 2003 to September 20th, 2004. That’s a pretty lengthy time to be asking about the Redskins with no other basis of comparison.
Second, because this survey took place in 2004, we know that all participants were reached by landline telephones. This means that significant portions of the Native American population were not represented in this survey. Additionally, minority groups create drastically higher margins of error because creating a representative sample is much more difficult to achieve. This isn’t a complaint against the NAES; it used the best means of data collection it had available at the time. Still, it is an important point to keep in mind; polling data about Native American opinions is much harder to interpret than predicting who people will vote for in a presidential election.
Third, this singular poll took place nearly a decade ago. Public opinion shifts over time, even in the seemingly small window of a decade. According to a CBS News poll from March 2004, only 22% of Americans favored same sex marriage. In March of 2013, that number shifted to 55%. Even the much referenced AP-GfK poll from May showed that support for the Redskins team name had dropped ten points since 1992. When it comes to public opinion polling, putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea. Just ask Nate Silver.
Fourth, this poll uses self-selection as a means of identifying Native American survey participants. This is a widely known problem in polling. People identify themselves as Indians on the phone when they in fact have no actual ties to Native American heritage. Entire scholarly books have been written about this phenomenon. This is another reason not to go crazy over any single poll.
“MYTH: Washington’s Native American logo is an offensive caricature much like Cleveland’s [Indians] Chief Wahoo, and Atlanta’s [Braves] Screaming Savage.
FACT: By 1965 the Redskins moved away from the Native American logo and changed to a spear (1965-1969), followed by the Vince Lombardi “R” logo in 1970. Walter Wetzel, President of the NCAI (National Congress of American Indians) at the time went to the Washington Redskins with photos of Indians in full headdress’ and said, “I’d like to see an Indian on your helmets.” The Redskins drew up a logo from the features within the photo and was approved by Wetzel who said, “it made us all so proud.””
I agree that in no way is the solemn Indian face on the helmet worse than Chief Wahoo or the Screaming Savage. Still, making the argument that “our logo isn’t nearly racist as these other pretty widely accepted racist symbols” is not particularly compelling. Backing it up with the assertion that the face was asked for by one man in 1970 is a weak point. Even if the intention was to please the President of the NCAI, he does not represent the views of all Native Americans. Why must we be shackled to the perspective of one person from over forty years ago? A lot of things have changed since 1970.
“MYTH: Redskins came from the time when bounties were given for Indian people’s scalp’s during the French and Indian War (1754-1763).
FACT: The term “red” was adopted by French and English by the 1750′s after the reference to “red man” was made in 1725 by a Taensa chief. According to the French (1725), the Taensa referred to themselves as “Red Men.” Three chiefs of the Piankashaws wrote (1769), “…You think that I am an orphan; but all the people of these rivers and all the redskins will learn of my death.” In 1807 French Crow (Wahpekute, Santee Sioux) said, “I am a redskin…””
If you accept the premise that a lot has changed since 1970, then you will also accept the argument that A LOT has changed since 1725 and 1807. Like, way more than since 1970. I find it troubling that many defenders of the team name choose to go back decades or even centuries to make arguments about the team name. It was fine then; it should be fine now. This only accentuates my point that “Redskins” has no place in the modern vernacular. Highlighting examples of how it was commonplace in 1807, when slavery still existed, does not help the cause.
“MYTH: George Preston Marshall had the team’s name changed to Redskins in order to cater to the racist South as the Southern most team in the NFL.
FACT: After leaving Braves Field where the team played, Marshall had the team name changed from Braves to Redskins in order to pay homage to the Boston Redsox and Fenway Park, while also keeping the Native American imagery from when they were the Braves. Marshall didn’t move the then Boston Redskins (1933) to Washington D.C. until 1937, when they ultimately became the Washington Redskins.”
It is true that Marshall changed the team name to Redskins while in Boston. It is also true that he urged coach William “Lone Star” Dietz (the man who was the supposed inspiration behind the team name) to wear Indian feathers and war paint on the sidelines because his mother was “most likely” from the Sioux tribe. While Marshall may not have named the team initially to cater to racist Southerners, he certainly didn’t mind playing up the Native American spectacle after moving the franchise to Washington in 1937. If you believe Marshall had the purest of intentions, you are still left debating the historical intentions of something that took place 75 years ago, by a man who was the last owner to integrate his team (in 1962).
Kiel’s article, like most defenses of the current team name, is mired in the past. Why should the current fan base be subservient to the opinions of people from 1769, 1807, 1937, or even 2004? The myths discussed in this piece do not adequately address the underlying concerns of fans (and nonfans) who believe the name is culturally insensitive in 2013.