Hail (and Farewell) to the Redskins

Redskins branded merchandise sits on display in a sports store in Sterling, VA, July 13, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
I don’t weep for the team name, but a little humility is in order regarding claims that the name and anyone who defends it are uncontroversially deplorable.

Were the Washington Redskins right to ditch their longstanding team name in favor of an as-yet-to-be-revealed substitute? While the Redskins name has been discussed for the better part of a decade, the debate is part of the broader question of the current madness for tearing down history of all kinds. Is the wiser approach to resist the woke mob at all points (the Texas Rangers are already in the mob’s sights, on logic opposite to the objection to Redskins), or is it to seek more reasoned distinctions? Whichever approach you prefer, let me offer some perspective and my own proposed replacement.

There really is a lot of football history at stake. The Redskins acquired their team name in 1933. That was their second year of operation, in Boston. They moved to Washington in 1937. Pro football began with the American Professional Football Association in 1920, a child of the First World War; this is its centennial. Its successor, the NFL, was founded in 1922. Just five other NFL franchises date as far back as 1932:

  • The Chicago Bears, founded 1920 as the Decatur Staleys, moved to Chicago and became the Bears in 1922.
  • The Arizona Cardinals, founded in 1920, started in Chicago, moved to St. Louis in 1960 and Phoenix in 1988.
  • The Green Bay Packers and New York Giants were founded in 1921 and 1925, respectively, under their current names.
  • The Detroit Lions, founded as the Portsmouth Spartans in 1930, acquired their current city and name in 1934.

The Steelers and Eagles came into the league in 1933, the Rams in 1937; all the other franchises date to after the Second World War. So the long continuity of the Redskins name is one of the pillars of the league’s ties to its earliest days.

As the Redskins, the team has won five championships (three in the Super Bowl era) and played in the championship game six other times. I confess my bias: I have, as a New York Giants fan, hated the Redskins for 40 years, never more so than when I spent a semester in D.C. in the spring of 1992 in the shadow of the Skins’ dominating 1991-92 Super Bowl season. But there is no question that the team name has meant a lot to a lot of people for a long, long time. That kind of tradition is entitled to some weight.

There was a tendency in the early NFL to either use the local baseball team’s name (e.g., the Giants) or a variant on it (e.g., Bears vs Cubs). The Redskins started off with the former strategy (the same name as baseball’s Boston Braves, who left Beantown 20 years later), then shifted to the latter in 1933, doubtless without much of a thought for whether the two names were meaningfully different.

Is “Redskins” a bad word? Even today, many schools in Native-American communities use Native-American team names, so perhaps some judgment is called for. My own gut instinct is that “Redskins” is quite different from “Braves”; the former is a racial distinction that sounds like a racial slur — and has often been used as one. Braves, by contrast, designates the Native-American warrior with all the martial virtues that conveys, and is no different in that regard than teams naming themselves Warriors, Vikings, Cavaliers, Knights, Crusaders, Rangers, Patriots, 76ers, or other names that identify with some particular military or nationalistic tradition. Nobody would insult a man — to his face or behind his back — by calling him a brave.

The history of the word redskin, however is somewhat more complex. It remains much in dispute where, when, and how the term “redskins” first began to describe Native Americans, but it is clear that the term was in use as far back as the final third of the 18th century. Even the Washington Post’s effort to trace the etymology finds it in use as much by the tribes as by whites. “Oklahoma,” for example, was introduced by a Choctaw missionary in one of the 1866 treaties establishing the territory; the term is generally regarded as combining two Choctaw words, “okla” meaning people, and “humma” meaning “red.” (There are those who dispute this, too.)

“Redskins” acquired more of the nature of a slur in the second half of the nineteenth century, as Americans advanced across the frontier and came to see Native Americans less as equals and more as obstacles. Words, of course, have traditions of their own; while it is important for historians and lawyers to understand the language of the past, it is not of much cultural relevance today what a term meant in 1815, if that meaning no longer lives. The odor of a slur is hard to dispel. If any sports team deserves a name change, it is the Redskins.

But does it actually harm anybody today, or even offend many people who aren’t going looking for offense to take? It depends on whom you ask, and how. Widely cited polls conducted in 2004 and 2016 found little sentiment among Native Americans for demanding a name change:

Nine in 10 Native Americans say they are not offended by the Washington Redskins name, according to a new Washington Post poll that shows how few ordinary Indians have been persuaded by a national movement to change the football team’s moniker. The survey of 504 people across every state and the District reveals that the minds of Native Americans have remained unchanged since a 2004 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found the same result. Responses to The Post’s questions about the issue were broadly consistent regardless of age, income, education, political party or proximity to reservations.

80 percent of the poll’s respondents said they would not be personally offended if someone called them a “redskin.”

Issue polling, of course, can be notoriously sensitive to how both the questions and the sample of respondents are derived. The Post has discussed at length its methodology, which is fairly standard for a public-opinion poll facing the twin challenges of tracking down Native Americans (a hard-to-poll group, who are disproportionately unlikely to have landlines) and of figuring out who defines themselves as Native American. Self-definition by Native heritage includes many people who are not active in their tribes: “Tribal members represented 36 percent of interviews conducted and accounted for 44 percent of the final weighted sample, which matches the Census Bureau’s data on demographic and geographic characteristics.”

In February, social-science researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan published their own survey. They seem to have gone looking to generate pushback on the Post poll. As Stephanie Fryberg, one of the authors and a member of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, described her view: “We can reach out to fans to help them to understand that they are contributing to the dehumanization of Native people.” Fryberg argues that the Post survey is tainted:

One of the things that we know in science is that the questions you ask before and after influence the response. For example, if I asked you a really serious question about people who are dying in your community, and then I say, “By the way, are you offended by Native mascots?” you see how you can really influence people.

This is true in general. But according to the Post, that is not what its poll did. The “do you find that name offensive, or doesn’t it bother you?” question was the third question on the survey, following only questions of racial self-identification. The Post was more transparent on its methodology than is often true of public-opinion polls, and it released the questionnaire along with a detailed defense of how it conducted the poll. That does not make it definitive — no one poll result ever is, especially an issue poll — but Fryberg and her co-authors seem to be straining to come up with reasons to denigrate the Post poll rather than just presenting their own survey.

That survey, of “more than 1,000 self-identified adult Native Americans representing 50 states and 148 tribes using the Qualtrics online survey platform,” found opinions more divided:

49% of participants in the UC Berkeley study were found to strongly agree or agree that the Washington Redskins’ name is offensive, while 38% were not bothered by it. The remainder were undecided or indifferent. However, the number of those offended rose for study participants who were heavily engaged in their native or tribal cultures (67%), young people (60%) and people with tribal affiliations such as members of federally recognized tribes (52%). As for ideological standpoints, progressive liberals were more likely to oppose the Redskins’ name, compared to their more conservative counterparts. . . . 57% who strongly identify with being Native American . . . were found to be deeply insulted . . .

This looks like a microcosm of America today: Progressives are more apt to claim offense than others, and people whose racial or ethnic identity is a bigger part of their self-image are more apt to think in those terms about everything. The latter is a recurring issue in polling by racial and ethnic group. Polling of Hispanics, for example, can vary dramatically by levels of self-identification or assimilation. As the survey authors admit, “Individuals who are high in racial-ethnic identity centrality are more likely to both perceive and experience group-based discrimination.” If you isolated poll respondents who “strongly identify with being white,” you’d similarly get some answers rather different from those produced by a random sampling of white Americans, and probably not in a good way.

The Berkeley survey was conducted entirely online, and if you dig into the study, you see it has its own issues not mentioned in press accounts. The authors admit in their paper that it is “not a truly representative national sample” because it “fell short in sampling Native Americans with experience living on reservations.” It excluded respondents who said they had Native heritage “but did not self-identify as Native American.”

Startlingly, for a poll about a football team, only 31 percent of the respondents were “Cisgender men,” the other 69 percent being “Cisgender women; transgender, nonbinary, and genderqueer people;” the Berkeley survey authors found that the latter were significantly more opposed to the team name. The Post sample, by contrast, was 49 percent male. It also appears that the Berkeley survey’s respondents skewed younger (typical for an online survey), with 47 percent under the age of 35; the Post sample had a higher share of respondents age 50 or older (39 percent) than the Berkeley survey’s 33 percent who were aged 45 or older. Again, the younger respondents were much more opposed.

Neither the Post poll nor the Berkeley survey should be taken as gospel. But at most, they show far more divided and less emphatic opinions, even among Native Americans, than you would expect if you listened only to the social-justice warrior crowd. I don’t weep for the team name, because it has always sounded offensive to my ears, but a little humility is in order regarding claims that the name and anyone who defends it are just uncontroversially deplorable.

In any event, the name is dead. What should be the new name? John McCormack suggests the Washington Powhatan. My own longstanding suggestion is much simpler: the Washington Pigskins. They’d still be “the Skins.” You’d barely have to change the name of “Hail to the Redskins.” The team has long cherished the secondary nickname “Hogs.” And pigskin is, of course, literally synonymous with football. If football itself is too offensive, the NFL has bigger problems than team names.


The Latest