In the last year many publications have decided to stop printing the name of Washington, D.C.’s professional football team. Mother Jones, Slate, and the Washington City Paper were among the first to eschew “Redskins” in favor of simply “the Washington football team.” On October 25 the San Francisco Chronicle made the switch, too, explaining that “our long-standing policy is to not use racial slurs — and make no mistake, ‘redskin’ is a slur — except in cases where it would be confusing to the reader to write around it.”
It certainly is a racial slur. As even the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in the National Review, “what’s at issue is not high principle but adaptation to a change in linguistic nuance. A close call, though I personally would err on the side of not using the word if others are available.” He proposes renaming the team “The Skins,” which strikes me as a little peculiar—would we call a team “The Noses,” “The Spleens,” or even “The Muscles”? —but whatever, he’s trying; at this point it’s really just one big brainstorming session. “Or how about the Washington Balls?” quipped Hamilton Nolan at Gawker.
But Krauthammer’s right to note that names evolve to reflect societal preferences.
“AI [American Indian] youth exposed to stereotypical AI images experienced decreased self-esteem compared to youth not exposed to these images. They also found that exposure (versus no exposure) to AI sports mascots resulted in lower achievement-related expectancies.”
Clarence Page wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 1992 that the Washington team now constitutes “the only big time professional sports team whose name is an unequivocal racial slur. After all, how would we react if the team was named the Washington Negroes? Or the Washington Jews? … It is more than just a racial reference, it is a racial epithet.”
The name is worse than that. They’re not the Washington Indians; they’re the Redskins. This is analogous to the difference between calling a team the sheiks and calling a team the towel heads. It’s not like calling them the Washington Negroes or the Washington Jews; it’s more like calling them the Washington Kikes. Really.
Washington’s team was originally known as the Boston Braves. In 1933, George Preston Marshall, an owner, changed the name to the Redskins to recognize head coach Lone Star Dietz, who claimed to have Sioux ancestors. Only over the last 25 years has the name become controversial. In 1992, Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, along with several American Indian groups, petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to change the team’s name. Their lawsuit centered on the idea that federal trademark law prohibits trademarks that are “disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous, or disreputable.” Without the trademark the team could continue to call itself whatever it wanted, but wouldn’t be able to make millions off of merchandise sales.
The name is particularly incongruous for D.C., chosen apparently by white people, in a majority black city, for a team composed mostly of black players, referencing a third racial group, one with virtually no presence in the city. All of this to honor a long-forgotten coach of possibly Sioux ancestry.
It shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise, however. Nicknames ranging from the mild to the deeply offensive are fairly common in sports. And in the past some of the names have been really bad. Mother Jones, as part of its drop the Redskins campaign, has come up with a list of other racially offensive team names in history. Winners include the St. Bonaventure University Brown Squaws, the Zulu Cannibal Giants, and the University of Northern Colorado Fighting Whites.
As of 2002, nearly 90 colleges and about 1,200 high schools in the U.S. used American Indian images and logos.
This sort of thing isn’t benign, either. Research indicates that the use of such mascots really does matter to students. Sports teams often use offensive names—and it hurts. According to research by psychologists John Chaney, Amanda Burke, and Edward Burkley:
AI [American Indian] youth exposed to stereotypical AI images (e.g., Chief Wahoo) experienced decreased self-esteem compared to youth not exposed to these images. They also found that exposure (versus no exposure) to AI sports mascots resulted in lower achievement-related expectancies in AI college students. [Furthermore] … non-AI college students were more likely to show a heightened tendency to stereotype other racial minority groups (i.e., Asian-Americans) following exposure to an AI mascot prime.
Researchers conducted an Implicit Association Test, which measured automatic associations by having participants compare positive and negative words to words for Native American and European groups, and discovered that:
Implicit bias toward AI people was positively correlated with implicit bias toward AI mascots. Moreover, the results indicate that a significant portion of the observed AI mascot bias was accounted for by AI person bias, suggesting that implicit evaluations towards AI mascots operate from similar implicit negative evaluations towards AI people. These results suggest that people … did not distinguish between their feelings toward AI mascots and their feelings toward AI people.
Most shockingly, “AI mascots were perceived as essentially equivalent to AI people.”
Supporters of retaining the names often argue that these mascots honor American Indians and usually show positive (strong, honorable, awe-inspiring) images of Native Americans.
This is, of course, a fair point. The Seminoles at Florida State continue to be known by that name, despite an NCAA prohibition against the use of Native American-themed mascots, because the actual Seminole Indians believe it honors them and specifically argued for the continued use of the name.
But there’s a big difference between calling a team the chiefs and calling them “The Redskins.” They both reference American Indians, but in one case they do so honorably and in another case it’s offensive.
A common assumption among Americans thinking about this sort of thing is that a team name is offensive purely because the group being referenced is offended. But the implications may be more serious. According to 2010 research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, it’s not just American Indians who are hurt by the use of racial stereotypes in sports mascots:
When exposed to the American Indian icon, participants were more willing to endorse stereotypes about a different racial minority group. The results also rule out the possibility that heightened stereotyping was a result of being primed about the university’s athletics, because the athletic-prime condition did not result in heightened stereotyping of Asian Americans any more than the neutral no-prime condition. It is possible … that heightened stereotyping by participants who were exposed to the American Indian chief icon resulted not from the icon per se, but because it primed the participants about the racially charged controversy over the continued use of the icon.
The Indian-themed mascot appears to make other people more willing to endorse stereotypes about lots of other ethnic groups.
Students who were exposed to an American Indian-themed sports mascot (Chief Illiniwek) were more likely, in the study, to express stereotypical views of Asian Americans. This is despite the fact that Chief Illiniwek “was described only in terms of positive characteristics.”
But then, the offensiveness might be sort of the point. A team name is supposed to be shocking, noticeable, even belligerent. That’s part of what makes it intimidating.
There are many reasons for team mascots. Sometimes they reflect the city’s history—San Francisco’s 49ers, Houston’s Oilers, Green Bay’s Packers—and sometimes they’re a sort of play on words; the Buffalo Bills reference not the mouths of birds or cash but, rather, the cowboy Buffalo Bill, a man who had a pretty limited relationship to the city in Western New York.
The common reason for a team mascot, however, is to intimidate or inspire fear in opponents by referencing something vaguely scary. The Pirates of Pittsburgh and the Vandals of the University of Idaho are particularly obvious examples. The University of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish fall into this category, too, and make use of an arguably more offensive stereotype, the drunken, violent Irishman. “Fighting Irish” is not technically a racial slur, nor does it use an offensive word, but still, are we honoring this guy or making fun of him?
A common scary group to reference is the “other,” the marginal, angry group feared by the dominant culture. This makes particularly odious terms useful for sports team names. They’re called the Redskins because until well into the 20th century white people commonly saw American Indians as the savages eager to raid Western towns and scalp settlers and take their women.
Chaney, Burke, and Burkley write that “from the time of first contact with European explorers, AIs have been portrayed fictionally as barbaric, wild, and savage—terms that imply AI people are less than human.” But that’s exactly why such images were so useful as mascots. You want your team to seem “barbaric, wild, and savage.” This perception, of course, is itself offensive, but if the point is to inspire fear in opponents, well, goal met.
Professional sports teams are all about the irrational fear of a secure group toward another group of people. No team ever tried to call themselves the Nazis or the Communists (the Cincinnati Reds are a reference to the red socks the players used to wear, not the United Soviet Socialist Republic), but that’s because these groups were an actual threat to America, not a structured, symbolic threat like the American Indian. That would be sort of like calling a sports team the Islamofascists (just imagine the logo) today: terrifying, vaguely racist, and structurally separate and offensive.
But it could be worse. The early 20th century gave us a Negro league team known as the Atlanta Black Crackers. Fantasy sports teams are often dramatically more offensive. First Down-Syndrome and Paula Deen‘s Plantation are among the tamer names. In Britain, the fans of Tottenham Hotspurs, a London-based soccer club, are being chastised for referring to themselves as “Yids.”