Playing Redskins’, and Devils’, Advocate

by Nicholas Frankovich

Trying to score a point for the anti-Redskins side, Geoffrey Nunberg, writing in The Atlantic, argues from a common assumption that he illustrates with a factual error.

First, the error: He implies that the New Jersey Devils are named for “the Prince of Darkness.” They’re not. Their name is a reference to the Jersey Devil, an elusive winged creature that, according to local legend, haunts South Jersey. The team does incorporate traces of conventional devil symbolism into its logo, however, which may be what led Nunberg to think that “New Jersey Devils” belongs to a class of team names “meant to evoke . . . destructive forces of nature, brigands and bandits, ancient warriors, and other assorted malignant beings.”

Therein lies the common assumption. In the mainstream culture of today, the martial virtues — persistence, determination, resilience, stoicism, courage — that were attributed to American Indians when sports teams were adopting Indian names last century are no longer so valued, at least not when they’re demonstrated on the literal battlefield, of which the playing field was once considered an obvious figure. Where our grandparents saw bravery etc., we tend to see “savagery or inhumanity,” in Nunberg’s words. For a book-length articulation of this shift in attitudes toward soldiery, Tom Engelhardt’s The End of Victory Culture might be the place to begin.

“Ancient warriors, and other malignant beings”: The anti-militarism expressed in that phrase is doing more to fuel the anti-Redskins movement than either its opponents or its supporters tend to recognize.