“I don’t know if Adidas made the same offer to a certain NFL team, here in Washington,” Barack Obama said, with that sly grin he sometimes adopts, “but they might want to think about that as well.”
The occasion was this month’s White House Tribal Nations Conference, an annual event under America’s first minority president, a focusing on the problems of the country’s native peoples, the most neglected and downtrodden of all US minorities. The giant sporting goods manufacturer had used the moment to announce that it would give financial help to high schools across the country that wanted to get rid of “potentially harmful” Indian monikers and mascots.
And Obama couldn’t resist the swipe. Who’s that “certain NFL team” in the nation’s capital? The Washington Redskins, of course. Welcome to the latest instalment of the longest-running political correctness drama in American sport: the campaign to have the Redskins – the “Skins” as they are known to devotees – call themselves something else.
The controversy has been around for decades, but has assumed new dimensions since Obama entered the White House and started speaking out about it. In one corner stand civil rights groups, most of the political establishment and the nation’s bien pensants. In the other, the National Football League, the majority of Redskins fans and the team’s owner Dan Snyder, who is insistent the name will never change. “It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps,” Snyder once famously told an interviewer.
Complicating the issue are differing opinions about what the name denotes. Is “redskin” really a slur, as insulting and demeaning as “nigger”, “hymie” or “dago”, as opponents maintain? Or, as the team claims, is it merely an affectionate throwback that actually honours native Americans, by evoking the sport’s twin hallmarks of strength and courage?
Native Americans themselves differ, scholars differ and so, most emphatically, do the two sides. For Obama that day, the Adidas initiative was “a smart, creative approach” that uses incentives to bring about changes which state legislatures refuse to make. For the Redskins and Snyder, though, it was “absurd hypocrisy”. The team fired off a scathing statement, asking how Adidas could take this action at high-school level, when it’s making a fortune selling uniforms to teams like ice hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks and official team gear to fans of baseball’s Cleveland Indians (known to their fans as “the Tribe”) and Atlanta Braves?
And if the Redskins feel picked upon, it’s understandable. Those other teams with native Indian names seem to get a free pass: no one seems greatly bothered by the Kansas City Chiefs, or much exercised by Cleveland’s logo-cum-mascot Chief Wahoo, a cheeky-grinning Indian boy with a painted red face and a feather in his hair.
Nor is the team divisive in Washington itself, quite the contrary. In a black-majority city that still bears the marks of segregation, the Redskins have always bridged the racial divide, beloved equally by whites, blacks (and probably by the native Americans who live here as well). Their misfortune has been to live under the eternal news spotlight that plays upon the capital.
Make no mistake, however, Indian sports symbols are in retreat at schools and colleges across the land. It’s been eight years since Chief Illiniwek, in full befeathered ceremonial glory, performed his last balletic dance as mascot of the basketball and football teams of the University of Illinois (though he’s still worth a look on YouTube). In all, the number of US school teams with Indian monikers has shrunk from more than 3,000 to perhaps half that today. Of these, dozens still call themselves Redskins, but even they are in decline.
And sometimes individual states do act. Earlier this year, California passed a law called AB 30, specifically requiring four public (state) high schools who use the Redskins name to drop it by 2017. But, as Obama intimated that day, the Redskins of Washington DC would be – pardon the phrase – a far, far bigger scalp.
The team, which hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1992, may be lousy, but it’s one of the NFL’s bedrock franchises, ranked by Forbes magazine as the league’s third most valuable (behind only the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots), indeed the ninth most valuable on the planet in any sport, worth a cool $2.4bn (£1.6bn).
Sooner or later, you can’t help feeling, even Snyder or his successor as owner will buckle to the pressure. The hometown paper, The Washington Post, refuses to use the word Redskins on its news pages, referring only to “the Washington football team”, although in The Post’s sports section the Redskins still rule. But this year, 50 of the 100 US Senators wrote letters to Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, demanding a change in the name.
More seriously, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has cancelled the Redskins’ trademark, declaring it “disparaging to Native Americans”. The team has already lost one appeal; if the decision is ultimately upheld, it would hit the franchise where it hurts most, in the pocket, opening the floodgates to cheap or counterfeit team kit.
But beyond the directly interested parties, the lobby groups and the PC brigade, what do ordinary Americans actually think? No big deal, surveys suggest. A poll last year in New Mexico, the heart of Indian country, found that by a three to one margin, respondents thought the team in distant Washington should keep its name. In 2013, a national poll showed some decline in support but still a massive 71 per cent who saw no need for change.
“It’s time to put this ‘issue’ behind us,” Ronald Toya, an enrolled member of a federally recognised tribe, wrote to The Post after its latest editorial tirade on the subject. “Let’s focus on poverty, education, jobs, domestic violence and issues that matter, whether on or off reservations.”
And if you’re a Redskins fan, the name is the least of the team’s problems. Snyder, a media and advertising magnate, is often described as the worst owner in US pro sport. But that’s not because of his defiance on the name issue. It is because of his disdain for the fans and the interfering management style of a man who goes through head coaches at the rate of Roman Abramovich but – unlike the Russian at Chelsea – with zero to show for it.
Coincidentally, among the players sponsored by Adidas is one of Snyder’s pet projects, Robert Griffin III, briefly the franchise’s starting quarterback. The Redskins had bet the ranch on Griffin. He’d won prize after prize in football at college level and was seen as a guaranteed NFL megastar who would lead them back to their former glory.
He has turned out perhaps the biggest bust in the recent history of US sport, physically smashed up, exposed as tactically naive and all but untradeable. As usual, the Redskins are limping along, with a new quarterback and a 4-5 record at the 2015 season midpoint. Forget Adidas and its “hypocrisy”. Forget Obama and those tiresome do-gooders. Maybe if the franchise changed its name, it might actually win something.
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