I know. It’s hard to criticize our beloved team’s emblem. It hurts to peel away a diehard love for the team, alter the lens through which we celebrate athleticism, and criticize the very symbol of the camaraderie our very own fandom strives to represent.
But it’s time. It’s time for this DC sports and culture publication to speak up against the harmful caricature of a people unbridled in our own backyard. We support this NFL team because they’re local, but we mustn’t support their mascot any longer. And yes, you can do both. The DC NFL team’s mascot embodies a longstanding racism that plagues our American lives today and harmfully misrepresents a critical portion of our nation’s legacy and future.
A few days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made a unique decision to protect the trademarked name of the clothing line entitled “FUCT.” In a notion meant to protect First Amendment and creativity rights, the court ruled that even if a trademarked name of, say, a fashion label or NFL team mascot, may be considered “scandalous” or “immoral,” it is permitted to continue being used. The ruling sets a precedent that essentially harmless, creative plays on curse words are set at an equal standard with racialized, violent, or brutally reprehensible slurs — as long as they’re trademarked.
While the term “redskin” has a complex history, in the context of this football team’s mascot, there lies an undeniably racist context. It’s a color-coded categorization of human beings, for crying out loud. The factioning of human beings by skin pigment is archaic and toxic to a democracy of so-called ‘equality.’ There is no separating the team’s name from its racialized undertones.
The franchise name dates back to the 1930s when George Preston Marshall founded the team and named them the Redskins in order to honor coach Lone Star Dietz, a man whose racial identity is still contested today. To further “honor” Coach Dietz, Marshall forced coaches and players to perform “Indian war dances” during halftime dressed in memorabilia and war paint.
Apparently, this was hilariously entertaining for Marshall. While he was important for the exponential economic developments of the Redskins and the NFL as a whole, he was outspokenly racist and the only team owner within the NFL congressionally ordered to desegregate his team in 1961.
Marshall’s wife, Academy Award nominee Corinne Griffith, penned the team’s long-standing anthem, “Hail to the Redskins,” which originally featured astonishingly violent lyrics: “Braves on the warpath / Fight for old Dixie / Scalp ‘em, Swamp ‘em, We will take ‘em big score!” A thorough lyrical analysis is unnecessary here — as fighting for Dixie alludes to protecting the antebellum Confederate South, and “Scalp ’em” is clearly problematic in its reference to a violent stereotype of indigenous Americans.
While the team has changed hands multiple times since Marshall’s reign, its ownership remains starkly retrogressive in rhetoric and official policy. Current CEO Dan Snyder isn’t as outspokenly racist as Marshall, yet his actions extend GPM’s antiquated ideology. Snyder employed strong anti-change sentiment regarding his team’s name reminiscent of his problematic predecessor in an interview with USA Today in 2013.
“We’ll never change the name […] It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” – Dan Snyder
Just like Marshall, Snyder protects and is openly loyal to the racial stereotypes his team name embodies — one example being the team’s unofficial mascot. Chief Zee, while he may rest in peace, was quite literally a walking realization of the Redskins’ name. His over-the-top headdress and war paint amongst other stereotypical characterizations enabled more non-native people to imitate his canned, profane mockery of indigenous Americans.
As a longtime DC fan, it’s hard to grow up under a culture of fandom that accepts an inherently racist mascot as the status quo. It isn’t easy to realize the point where one must disassociate themselves from a name that has been such a significant part of their sports identity isn’t easy, yet it is the real and urgent knowledge that DC fans must accept. From the rec level to the global stage, there are countless examples of sports fandoms clouding our judgment of what is right.
Too often we are quick to defend the integrity of our teams without adhering to the blurred bar of moral standards. It’s a shame that racist culture infiltrates even our most innocent of pastimes, but it is up to our advocacy and patriotism as fans to demand that DC deserves better.
-Nathalie Reinstein & Michael Gorman