Written By: J. Laura Arman
Back in 1932, George Preston Marshall purchased a franchise of the National Football League (NFL) in Boston and named it the Boston Braves. It originally shared a stadium with the Major Baseball League (MBL) team, also named Boston Braves. To stop the confusion with the identical names of both teams, Marshall changed the football franchise to Boston Redskins to honor their Native American coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, according to the University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class.
In 1937, the “Redskins” relocated to Washington D.C.; the team is now known as the Washington Redskins. Without any opposition from any Native American groups, it had its trademark protected in 1967.
However, dispute rose in 1992 when Suzan Harjo and six other Native Americans requested to cancel the Redskins’ trademark. They argued that the trademark “disparaged” Native Americans, as mentioned by the report from the University of Maryland.
According to USA Today, the term “Redskins” roots back to the 1700s. Back then, hunters collected bounties on Native Americans by presenting a victim’s scalp or “red skin.”
In general, the debate over “Redskins” as a nickname for professional sports has been going on for decades. USA Today reported that in the early 1990s, a group of Native Americans went to court in hopes to invalidate the NFL’s team “Redskins” trademark, claiming that the term is disparaging.
Back in 2013, Washington Redskins owner, Daniel Snyder told USA Today that, “We’ll never change the name of the team,” he quoted. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator, once mentioned in a Fox News interview, that it was just a “political game.”
“The fact is that 49% of Native American kids were not graduating high school as of 2010,” Shapiro said. “Only three were going on to college, only 10% of those were graduating in four years, and the Senate is focused on the name of the Washington Redskins as though that’s the biggest problem facing the Native American community? The name of the Washington Redskins is about a hundredth on the list of issues facing native American communities today.”
Recently, President Donald Trump called out the Washington Redskins for reviewing their team name after demands from major sponsors. FedEx, a key sponsor for the football team, is pressuring the NFL to change its name in response to the overwhelming pressure from its investors, citing the name’s racist connotation, BBC reported.
In response, Trump Tweeted:
“They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness, but now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct.”
The Washington Post conducted a poll in 2016 about how Native Americans view the Redskins’s name. Ninety percent of its more than 500 respondents said they were not offended by the team’s name, while 9% found it offensive. This poll has been used by Synder as evidence that the name itself is not offensive.
But a new scientific study conducted by University of Michigan and University of California, Berkeley in 2019 challenges the data. In its national study of more than 1,000 Native Americans, results show that nearly half of the respondents — specifically 49% — found the name offensive, while 38% found it inoffensive.
Just at the beginning of 2020, Washingtonian discussed the contradictory data and results with the co-author of the scientific study, Stephanie Fryberg.
Fryberg told the Washingtonian that, “The [Washington] Post poll would never be scientifically published.”
“They called people, as part of a larger study, and they had these items [about mascots] in there,” she continued. “One of the things that we know in science is that the questions you ask before and after influence the response.”
For example, Fryberg said, “If I asked you a really serious question about people who are dying in your community, and then I say, “By the way, are you offended by Native mascots?” you see how you can really influence people.”
Another issue mentioned was that The Washington Post had to call people, which shows the difference in the data. Gathering data online versus doing a call changes the respondents’ responses. When they are called, they are more likely to give a positive and desirable response, Fryberg told Washingtonian.
“Native people telling a person they don’t know that they’re “offended” is a strong emotion,” Fryberg quoted.
Simon Moya-Smith, a Native American himself, commented on the issues and relevancy of polls and approval of the usage of “Redskins” on CNN. He explained that, “These are polls, these are numbers. But when it comes down to it, a racial slur is a racial slur. So just because you approve of its use does not make it any less harmful.”
A study done by the University of Maryland mentioned how in a brief filed in 2004 by the original petitioners for the cancelation of Redskins’ name had a correlation between demeaning names and psychological harm to Native Americans.
Native Americans have the highest rates of alcohol-related deaths and suicide in the U.S. According to the study, issues of suicide and alcoholism represent the problem of poor self-image.
Furthermore, the authors argued, “Native Americans’ self-esteem is precisely what’s at stake when fans prance around in a war paint at football games.”
Note that in 2016, the National Institute of Justice published main findings of a research study about the prevalence of violence against Native Americans. They found that the lifetime victimization of Native Americans was 1.2 times higher than for White women; for men, it is 1.3 times higher.
The study also found that interracial violence is more prevalent among Native Americans. Though the exact numbers of victimization per person is unknown, most Native Americans victims have experienced at least one act of violence committed by an interracial perpetrator. All-in-all, 83% of American Indians and Alaska Native adults have experienced some form of violence in their lives.
Racial tensions have been increasingly sensitive lately, especially following the death of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020. Changing the name of a football team might not fully solve racial issues or inequality. But surely, if changing the name of a football team could ease the burden of certain minority groups, then there is no harm in doing so.