This weekend as I was watching football, the topic of the Washington, D.C., team’s name came up.
My wife is by no means a sports fan and has no allegiance to any team, precedent or “sense of history” that may pervade the game. To her, the team’s name is simply an ethnic slur and she’s a bit amazed it’s been allowed to continue as long as it has.
But on Sunday, she proposed a solution that I thought was absolutely brilliant.
“They should keep the name ‘Redskins,’” she said, “but they should change their mascot to a potato.”
There’s a reason I married that woman. I mean, seriously, that’s the kind of win-win, outside-the-box solution I think we can all get behind.
It’s like keeping the county name as “King” but instead of the namesake being a little-known vice president, most known for being pro-slavery and for serving the shortest time ever in that office (King died of tuberculosis 45 days after being sworn in), changing it to instead honor a slain civil rights leader with the same last name.
The topic of Native American-based sports teams has been an issue for fans in this country for some time. Whether it’s the Atlanta Braves and the “Tomahawk Chop” that they’ve been doing down there for 25 years or the Cleveland Indians and their “Chief Wahoo” logo or the Kansas City Chiefs or the Chicago Blackhawks or North Dakota Fighting Sioux (which was dropped in 2012 after a vote of the people of the state).
There are also hundreds of high schools around the country with similar mascots and names.
Many of these names are designed to evoke the fighting spirit of Native Americans and while I get that and am generally not offended by it, but then again, it is not my heritage they are trying to commercialize, stereotype and capitalize on.
But “Redskins”? Come on. That’s a straight slur. There’s no way around that. And I recognize that it’s a “traditional” team name that has been with the league since 1932, but a lot of other stupid, hurtful traditions have fallen by the wayside since then.
It’s time for that team name and logo to go with it. In 2001, the US Commission on Civil Rights called for schools to change away from Native American-based names. Then, this year, the US Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington football team’s trademark license because the name is “disparaging to Native Americans.” The team, of course, is appealing.
When I first started in Renton last summer, this was a topic I planned to address as I noticed that the Renton High School mascot was the “Indians,” a term that also carries some stereotypical weight and often some bad feelings.
But after I mentioned this in the office, reporter Tracey Compton stopped me and said “You might want to look into that a bit before you write that.”
So I did. And I learned something.
In Renton, the name “Indians” is a reclaimed word, used in honor of one of the school’s greatest alums, Henry Moses. Because of that, it is supported by Moses’s widow and by the Duwamish Tribe of Indians.
The story goes like this: In 1911, Renton High School was built on land formerly owned by the Duwamish. It opened with no symbol or mascot.
In 1916, a young Native American named Henry Moses enrolled at the school. Moses was a an active member of the school’s sports teams and while he was at the school, he was the only Native American member of the basketball team.
According to the High School’s website, “other teams were known to taunt the young man and call his school the ‘Indians’ in an attempt to harass the squad.”
But Moses ignored the taunts and used them as motivation to help make the Renton team better.
According to legend, Moses once said “Since I’m a major part of the team, we might as well be called the ‘Indians.’”
In honor of Moses and his influence, the school adopted the name and they’ve been the Indians ever since. And despite controversy about other Native American themed mascots, Renton has stood strong, using the word to honor Moses and his heritage, turning the insult around.
Again, according to the website, Henry Moses once said, “Indian stands for determination, bravery, and strength.”
I love that story. And I love that I got all flustered about the name, only to discover that not only was I the one who was wrong about the name, that now I actually support its use and think Renton should take a little pride in it.
Of course, the Washington, D.C., football team has no such origin story and in a modern context, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which a phrase based entirely on an ethnic group’s skin color is acceptable.
Of course the team’s owners have the RIGHT to call their team that. No one disputes that. The question is SHOULD they?
And personally, I agree with the dozens of broadcasters and news organization that are no longer using the word. It just feels dirty, like it should be said in hushed tones.
And without a background story like the one at Renton High School, I just think it’s time to climb out from the shadows of our past. Washington sports teams have changed names before, 20 years ago or so, the “Bullets” became the “Wizards” because the owner did not like the violent overtones of the name, especially given the high homicide rate the District of Columbia was known for at the time.
So make the change, Washington, D.C. football team. You are not Renton and your team name does not honor anyone. Time to move on.
Think of it as an opportunity to sell more jerseys, beach towels and beer coozies to a whole new tuber-obsessed fan base.
Shoot, even I might buy a hat with a delicious tater on it, and I am a Philadelphia Eagles fan.