By Ling Woo Liu
Admittedly, I’m not a football fan. Now that it’s September, my husband is clocking more and more hours glued to Sunday Night, Monday Night and, alas, even Thursday Night Football. Though he tries to get me excited about Kaepernick’s speed or the latest on RG3’s knee injury, the game just isn’t a fit for me.
But even someone as green as me to the pigskin game paused when I heard that Washington D.C.’s football team has yet to change its name from “Redskins” to something more appropriate for the 21st — or even 20th — century.
Today, when Washington faces off with the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum, I hope that San Francisco Bay Area fans won’t just be rooting for a silver-and-black win. The Bay Area’s ethnic kaleidoscope has made it an early adopter of progressive movements, including the first ethnic studies departments in the country. The region also has a track record of agitating for precisely these kinds of name changes. The Golden State Warriors were previously the Philadelphia Warriors, complete with a logo of a grinning, shirtless man with a feather in his hair, until public pressure convinced them to adopt a new logo and mascot in 1971. Remember the Stanford Indians? After Native American students launched a petition in 1972, officials at the Farm officially dropped its mascot (and caricature) in favor of its current nickname, the Cardinal (though old habits die hard). And in 1989, San Francisco’s Lowell High School dropped its “Indians” name in favor of, oddly enough, The Cardinals.
Elsewhere in the country, there have been similar name changes, some of them shockingly recent. In 1980, Pekin, Illinois’ high school changed its name from the “Pekin Chinks” to the “Pekin Dragons” (click here to see how “Chinks” and “Chinklettes” dressed in 1971). In 2002, a high school in a Dallas suburb changed its nickname from the “Fighting Coons” to the “Fighting Raccoons.” And in 2010, the University of Mississippi replaced its former mascot, a white plantation owner who sported a goatee and a cane, with its current Rebel Black Bear.
“It’s ridiculous to be going into 2014 and still have a name like [R—skins] out there,” says the Fremont, CA-based Chief Great Owl Lightning of the First Nation of Ojibwe of California. “Americans need to understand that we’re a race of people that doesn’t just exist in Hollywood and mythology. We’re still around. We have lives and families like everyone else.”
Prior to Washington’s opening game against the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this month, the Oneida Indian Nation launched an advertising campaign calling for the Washington team’s mascot change. The ads will run in local stations when Washington is on the road this season.
To many, the term “R--skins” isn’t just a name, it’s a slur as offensive and outdated as the ch—k word. In the Oneida Indian Nation’s latest ad, a Nation representative explains, “The word ‘redskins’ is deeply hurtful to Native Americans. It is what our people were called as our lands were taken. It is the insult Native American parents heard as their children were taken.” Similarly, the term “ch—k” became a derogatory way of referring to Chinese Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when anti-Chinese fervor culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Quite simply, it just isn’t appropriate to use a group of people as a lucky charm to entertain audiences or turn a profit.
And boy does the Washington team make a profit. The cost of a name change pales in comparison to the team’s $1.7 billion value. And I’m not referring to the entire NFL league, which is worth $37.4 billion — the equivalent to the GDP of Serbia. NFL games regularly draw tens of millions of viewers during its six-month-long season, giving the Capital’s team an unmatched platform to either endorse its offensive name, or set an example by changing it.
You may think that sports are supposed to be entertainment, so why bring in political correctness and ruin the fun?
It turns out that sports have played a pivotal role in the ongoing civil rights movement. Who can forget the 1968 image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, as they stood on the Olympic medal stand, fists raised to draw attention to the treatment of African Americans in this country? Or the epic 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, who helped vault women’s tennis into an internationally respected sport with equal prizes for men and women at grand slam tournaments? Today, there are calls for the U.S. to boycott the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, to protest the Russian government’s draconian treatment of its LGBT population.
To be sure, Washington’s NFL team isn’t the only sports team that needs a name makeover. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged school districts and colleges to discontinue the use of Native American names and mascots because they may violate anti-discrimination laws. But without enforcement, there are still as many as 2,000 school teams around the country that continue to use offensive names, as well as the very prominent professional and college teams, such as the Cleveland Indians and Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish. Still, the Washington team’s visibility in the world’s most lucrative sports league gives the team an opportunity to be a role model to so many smaller franchises and local teams.
This year, there have been some high-profile voices that have joined the call for change. In April, a Washington D.C. city council member suggested the R—skins change their name to the “Redtails,” to honor the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American pilots of World War II. The following month, ten members of Congress sent letters to the Washington team’s owner and the NFL commissioner, among others, urging a name change. And within the past month, several prominent sports writers, including Peter King of Sports Illustrated, Christine Brennan of USA Today, and Bill Simmons of Grantland.com, all stopped using the name “R—skins.”
But an April 2013 poll by the Associated Press-GfK showed that four out of five Americans don’t think Washington’s NFL team should change its name. If we went by popularity polls however, Jim Crow laws might still be alive and well. So even if the majority of NFL fans feel an attachment to Washington’s passé name, they won’t be the only ones who’ll see if and when this name is finally retired. The team’s owner, billionaire Daniel Snyder, told USA Today in May that he would “never” change the name. Mr. Snyder, just do the right thing. Your fans, non-fans and history will all be the judge.
Ling Woo Liu is the director of strategic communications for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a national affiliation of Asian American and Pacific Islander civil rights groups with member organizations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington DC. Last year, she organized the RightsFest civil rights film festival in New York, which focused on civil rights and sports. She is based in San Francisco.