What’s In a Name?

The U.S. Patent Office has dropped the Washington Redskins name off from being a registered trademark.   The Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has refused to change the team’s name, citing tradition.  The team can still use the name, but it would lose the legal power of trademark protection.  This means anyone can use the name and logo at their own pleasure.  This has become the most significant political statement towards the disdain of a sports team name in American History.

Before we continue, let’s keep in mind that this isn’t the first time a Washington D.C. team has changed a name as a result of an open debate about public shame.  Abe Pollin, the NBA team owner in the late nineties decided to change the name of the Washington Bullets to the Washington Wizards, probably due to the consistent high violent crime rate of the city, and possibly because he had a friend who died by a bullet, literally.  This was perhaps a very easy change to pull off due to no real emotional connection to “bullets” (perhaps it should have been a Texas team?), and to be quite frank, the logo sucked.  Unfortunately for the D.C., the name of the Redskins is technically a warrior of some kind, which is a “person”… to personify.  This — on top of a strange love for a “cowboys and Indians” showdown around Thanksgiving Day — becomes hard obstacles for possibly changing the name of the Redskins.  Furthermore…  on an honest assessment, many people do not fair well with name changes.


So what’s in a name?

There are people on both sides of the fence on this; some argue that the name should be changed, others argue to keep it’s name.  Others have no idea what’s going on, and many don’t even see a problem with the current name “Redskins”.  Myself?  I see the problem with the name, but I also see a problem with the argument against.  Due to the competitive, physical nature of American football,  we as Americans tend to name our teams after warriors of our past: Vikings and Nordic types, “Fighting Irish” and other Irish typespatriots and other colonial/pioneer fighters,  cowboys and western gunslingers,  rangers,  marauders and other raiding peoples,  pirates and other swashbuckling open sea types,  any variant of  Soldier, troop or warfighter from world history to present day.  So, it’s no wonder why we as Americans figure that we are fit to use some form of a warrior of the indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere.  So from that standpoint, Braves, Chiefs, Blackhawks or Redskins seem to be valid choices for a team name.  Understanding this fact seems to raise more questions.  Is this name-offense issue a slippery slope?  There’s numerous white caricature based team names, so what’s the problem?  Should any Irish person be upset with any “Fighting Irish” mascot?  Technically, isn’t ALL team names based on stereotypes?

The problem here is that Irish modern day are 100%, totally accepted as “white”, thus falls into the state of white defaultness… which means that to be white is to be the ordinary standard “default” concept of what it means to be American.  Native Americans — Amerindians — not only suffered near extermination but lost land and property, and continued to get pushed westward into places where American whites didn’t really care about… until they found something to care about there… and pushed them away again.  Many people, white and black, enjoy stating they are part “Indian” which seems to be the main “Native American” most of us come across.  While the assimilation of Irish (and Italian) into the white conglomerate identity grants white defaultness (and to another extent, white privilege) to the Irish, that didn’t work the same way with Amerindian — even with amalgamation.  Simply put, Amerindians do not have positive control over how they are represented… much like black people don’t have positive control over their representation.

Another issue is the fact that it is without a doubt racist, or descriptive of the behavior of racists, to place a pluralistic name onto an identity that’s far more complex.  There is a clear reason to have a problem with a name assuming every Amerindian is alike, the same, etc.  To put this into perspective, “Irish” is a distinct ethnic/tribal group with its own culture within it.  It is very unique, and in its exclusivity it has an identity to respect and learn about.  The problem with “Redskin” is that it assumes that ALL Amerindians are the same.  The logo itself is designed off of the “Wild West” Amerindian peoples… to no respect of what warrior or tribe it supposed to represent.  A parallel to this would be to place all prototypical white warriors into one large pluralistic identity and call them “white faces”, or the “fighting whites”.  If you think this sounds a bit absurd, perhaps that’s precisely what Native Americans feel like when they see the name “Redskin”.


Finding Balance

Let’s get one thing straight: I prefer an America where ALL warriors are represented on our football helmets and basketball jerseys.  This means all warriors and fighting men of various ethnicities and tribal affiliations.  I do not, wish to see Native American warrior NOT represented and then largely forgotten about.  The worst thing we can do as Americans is forget our history and forget our warriors.  If there is no team name change, perhaps one can find out what Native peoples were in the Washington D.C. area and then go with that.  Or find out what tribe is reflected on the current logo and then go with that.  Much like any fighting Irish mascot, no one has a problem with the actual tribe or affiliation being called out.  There’s minimal issue with the fact that Florida uses the Seminoles as their team name and College mascot.  The fact that the Seminole tribe existed in Florida probably helps.  Another idea is to honor Afro-American fighters for a change.  There has been an idea expressed that it would be preferred to change the team to the Washington Redtails, based on the Tuskegee Airmen who fought in World War II.  Now that’s a solid idea.

What are your thoughts?


Photo Credit: Johnny Silvercloud

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