Re-name that team
(The Washington Football Team has said it will announce its new nickname on Feb. 2. To beat the WFT to the punch, here’s a re-post from 2020….)
For a new name, I suggest “Washington Pigskins.” That would check all the boxes: 1) History, by retaining a reference to the ‘Skins moniker that has been part of the NFL team’s identity since 1933. 2) The sport in question, since footballs, though never made from a pig’s skin, nevertheless have been stuck with the description for more than a century. 3) Washington fans’ particular fondness for members of the massive offensive line, known as the Hogs, that produced three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and ’90s. 4) and most important, it’s a handle that wouldn’t insult anyone.
Sports nicknames range from the geographically (Colorado Rockies) or historically (Philadelphia 76ers) appropriate to simple alliteration (Baylor Bears) and wieldiness (Minnesota Wild). They aren’t of great import and occasionally are downright wacky. A minor-league hockey team in Georgia was the Macon Whoopies. There was a high school in Illinois called the Polo Marcos. The UC Santa Cruz teams are known as the Banana Slugs.
But there is this obtuse old habit of pro, college and high school teams calling themselves Indians, Braves, Chiefs and so on — and employing wild-eyed, bloodthirsty-looking caricatures, feather-wearing fans and “war” chants as part of their act. At least since the early 1970s, indigenous peoples have been raising public objections. Please stop, Native American leaders said: “We’re people, not mascots.”
Some teams did stop, decades ago. Dartmouth College ditched “Indians” for “Big Green.” Stanford University replaced “Indians” with “Cardinal.” St. John’s University transitioned from “Redmen” to “Red Storm.” Just to cite a few. Yet the highest-profile of the offenders, the professional football team in the nation’s capital, has persistently used — and repeatedly defended — a racial slur as its brand for 87 years. The Washington Redskins.
Retired Washington Post reporter Leonard Shapiro this week recalled confronting then-team owner Jack Kent Cook in 1992 with Webster’s unabridged dictionary’s derogatory definition of the nickname. That was when activists attempted (but failed) to remove trademark rights to the name.
“I don’t care what Webster’s says,” Shapiro quoted Cook. “I use the Oxford Dictionary, and my dear boy, it says no such thing.”
In the same lordly fashion of Cook and George Preston Marshall — the avowed racist who founded the team, burdened it with the “Redskins” name and was the last NFL owner to integrate his roster — current owner Daniel Snyder has continued to belligerently resist demands to show a little respect.
In 2013, during yet another round of protests by Native American groups and an increasingly mainstream awareness of the disparaging term, Snyder swore “never” to change it. At the time, D.C. mayor Vincent Gray refused to utter the nickname, referring only to “our Washington team.” Sports Illustrated football maven Peter King and my former Newsday colleague Tom Rock did the same. A D.C. high school announced that it was barring all Washington team paraphernalia on its campus.
(On that occasion, the satirical “news” site, The Onion, acknowledged Snyder’s willfully tone-deaf stubbornness by recommending he change the name to “the D.C. Redskins.” Another snarky source proposed that, if he was so intent of keeping “Redskins,” Snyder could at least show a touch of sensitivity by tweaking the logo to a redskin potato.)
True to form, Snyder — backed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at the time — cited polls claiming that Native Americans weren’t put off by the name, and took refuge in the weak excuse that he was preserving the team’s sacred tradition and heritage.
That struck Duke University cultural anthropologist Orin Starn, who was teaching a Native American studies program, as a “spurious argument. You don’t want to keep the tradition of separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites or the tradition of keeping black players out of professional sports [as Marshall had].”
Except, of course: “Rich men don’t like to be told what to do,” Starn said.
So here’s what appears to be different now amid the nationwide demonstrations over minority human rights and social justice following George Floyd’s murder by a Minnesota policeman. The corporate giants FedEx and Nike, speaking Snyder’s language — big money — have sensed a different answer blowing in the wind and have let Snyder know it.
Snyder suddenly is saying the team is open to a “thorough review” of the nickname, and already alternatives are being offered on social media: The Washington Redtails — a nod to the nickname for the crimson-tailed planes flown by World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first Black military aviators in World War II. The Washington Americans. Generals. Presidents. Lincolns. Memorials. Veterans. Jeffersons. Roosevelts. Monuments.
Snyder could take his pick. Or, he could keep his willfully degrading team name. And retain his personal appellation: the Washington Pigheaded.