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Jacobsen: The truth behind the mascot (Sept. 10)

Vicky Jacobsen | Tuesday, September 10, 2013

If you’re anything like most American football fans, you might have caught at least a few minutes of the game between Washington and Philadelphia on Monday Night Football. Like most viewers, you were probably focused on the return of Robert Griffin III or Chip Kelly’s first official game as the coach of the Eagles. And you probably heard or saw the name “Redskins” dozens of times, and thought nothing of it.

Maybe we should think a little bit harder about it.

There are people who have been pushing for a new Washington mascot for decades, but the past few months have seen a new surge of support for a name change. Local politicians, including mayor Vincent Gray, have spoken out against the moniker that is, let’s face it, an obvious racial slur. Some media organizations have publicized their decision to discontinue the use of  “Redskin” in any NFL coverage, and on Sunday, D.C.-area radio stations began airing a commercial sponsored by the Oneida Indian Nation that requests the team find a more suitable mascot.

Even the ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte wrote an article indicating some members of the ESPN stats and information department are pushing to avoid using “the R-word.”

Still, Washington owner Daniel Snyder has steadfastly refused to consider abandoning the mascot. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is standing by Snyder in this fight – in June, he wrote a letter to Congress claiming the “Redskins” mascot “from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context.” Now I’m not entirely sure why Roger Goodell gets to decide what Native Americans do and do not find offensive, and seeing as the team was first called the Redskins in 1933, 26 years before his birth, we can confidently conclude that he doesn’t fully understand the context in which the name was chosen. 

Regardless, he is wrong to suggest that the term doesn’t have an ugly past. Maybe he should take a look at a cartoon or Western from the 1930s – it’d be hard to argue that the same people who read books portraying Native Americans as backwards and violent were singing “Hail to the Redskins” (which, by the way, originally included broken English and scalping) with a rich appreciation for Native culture and history.

Yet a June poll conducted by the Washington Post found that eight of 10 Washington fans thought the team should remain the “Redskins” (despite the fact that the majority said they would never use the term to refer to a Native American in any other context, which is a good indication that most people do realize the term is offensive.).

In a lot of ways I’m not surprised – until recently, I was one of those people. Although I’ve never been much of a Redskins fan, I lived in what passes for D.C. suburbia for six years. In the fall, the hallways of my middle and high schools were seas of burgundy and gold. The same people passing around petitions asking the rest of the student body to swear off language that was sexist, homophobic or disrespectful to people with developmental disabilities thought nothing of wearing a jersey with the “Redskins” stamped on the front. And I don’t blame them – they didn’t mean to offend anyone (except Cowboys fans.) They just really, really liked Chris Cooley. 

Honestly, until this year I thought there was too much fuss being made by the people who didn’t like Native American mascots. Surely they realized the entire Washington-metro area wasn’t using the word as a racial epithet, right? We thought the logo looked cool. And apologists could always find a few people with Native American heritage who said they weren’t too bothered by the mascot.

But in the past year, a lot of people have brought up a striking question: would it be okay to name a team after an epithet for any other group of people? Clearly, the answer is no.

And, really, why is it so important to me, or Snyder or Goodell or D.C. fans in general, that the name stay the same? Because it’s been that way for a long time? Because we don’t want to buy new car decals? Because we don’t want to admit we’ve been accepting something kind of racist for decades now? 

Switching the name would be inconvenient (and, yes, expensive) for sports fans and Snyder, who would have to replace many a logo. Yes, there are fans who have fond memories associated with the term. But there are plenty of people out there for whom the word “Redskins” is really, truly painful. I’m not petulant enough to think they should continue to suffer for my convenience. 

Now if only Dan Snyder felt the same way.

Contact Vicky Jacobsen at vjacobse@nd.edu. The views expressed in this Sports Authority column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

-

The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.

-

archive

Jacobsen: The truth behind the mascot (Sept. 10)

Vicky Jacobsen | Tuesday, September 10, 2013

 

If you’re anything like most American football fans, you might have caught at least a few minutes of the game between Washington and Philadelphia on Monday Night Football. Like most viewers, you were probably focused on the return of Robert Griffin III or Chip Kelly’s first official game as the coach of the Eagles. And you probably heard or saw the name “Redskins” dozens of times, and thought nothing of it.

Maybe we should think a little bit harder about it.

There are people who have been pushing for a new Washington mascot for decades, but the past few months have seen a new surge of support for a name change. Local politicians, including mayor Vincent Gray, have spoken out against the moniker that is, let’s face it, an obvious racial slur. Some media organizations have publicized their decision to discontinue the use of  “Redskin” in any NFL coverage, and on Sunday, D.C.-area radio stations began airing a commercial sponsored by the Oneida Indian Nation that requests the team find a more suitable mascot.

Even the ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte wrote an article indicating some members of the ESPN stats and information department are pushing to avoid using “the R-word.”

Still, Washington owner Daniel Snyder has steadfastly refused to consider abandoning the mascot. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is standing by Snyder in this fight – in June, he wrote a letter to Congress claiming the “Redskins” mascot “from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context.” Now I’m not entirely sure why Roger Goodell gets to decide what Native Americans do and do not find offensive, and seeing as the team was first called the Redskins in 1933, 26 years before his birth, we can confidently conclude that he doesn’t fully understand the context in which the name was chosen. 

Regardless, he is wrong to suggest that the term doesn’t have an ugly past. Maybe he should take a look at a cartoon or Western from the 1930s – it’d be hard to argue that the same people who read books portraying Native Americans as backwards and violent were singing “Hail to the Redskins” (which, by the way, originally included broken English and scalping) with a rich appreciation for Native culture and history.

Yet a June poll conducted by the Washington Post found that eight of 10 Washington fans thought the team should remain the “Redskins” (despite the fact that the majority said they would never use the term to refer to a Native American in any other context, which is a good indication that most people do realize the term is offensive.).

In a lot of ways I’m not surprised – until recently, I was one of those people. Although I’ve never been much of a Redskins fan, I lived in what passes for D.C. suburbia for six years. In the fall, the hallways of my middle and high schools were seas of burgundy and gold. The same people passing around petitions asking the rest of the student body to swear off language that was sexist, homophobic or disrespectful to people with developmental disabilities thought nothing of wearing a jersey with the “Redskins” stamped on the front. And I don’t blame them – they didn’t mean to offend anyone (except Cowboys fans.) They just really, really liked Chris Cooley. 

Honestly, until this year I thought there was too much fuss being made by the people who didn’t like Native American mascots. Surely they realized the entire Washington-metro area wasn’t using the word as a racial epithet, right? We thought the logo looked cool. And apologists could always find a few people with Native American heritage who said they weren’t too bothered by the mascot.

But in the past year, a lot of people have brought up a striking question: would it be okay to name a team after an epithet for any other group of people? Clearly, the answer is no.

And, really, why is it so important to me, or Snyder or Goodell or D.C. fans in general, that the name stay the same? Because it’s been that way for a long time? Because we don’t want to buy new car decals? Because we don’t want to admit we’ve been accepting something kind of racist for decades now? 

Switching the name would be inconvenient (and, yes, expensive) for sports fans and Snyder, who would have to replace many a logo. Yes, there are fans who have fond memories associated with the term. But there are plenty of people out there for whom the word “Redskins” is really, truly painful. I’m not petulant enough to think they should continue to suffer for my convenience. 

Now if only Dan Snyder felt the same way.