Supreme Court should force Redskins to drop racist name, legacy
Last week, a group of Native American leaders asked the Supreme Court to rule that the Washington Redskins team name is too offensive to be protected by U.S. trademark law. The law states that trademarks will be refused if they consist of “matter which may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” The Redskins franchise has argued that the name is not meant to be offensive. Native American writer, lecturer and curator Suzan Harjo, the lead plaintiff in the case, has summed up the debate like this:
“The argument has always been the same,” Harjo said. “‘We are honoring you,’ they say. ‘No, you’re not,’ we reply. ‘Shut up,’ they say. That’s pretty much the divide for 17 years.”
The Redskins can claim the name is not meant to be offensive, but consider this. It was chosen by their first owner, George Preston Marshall, a virulent racist who pushed to segregate the NFL for a decade (from 1934 to 1945) and refused to sign black players to the Redskins until 1962, when he was forced to by the federal government. According to Wikipedia:
[Marshall] is best known for his intractable opposition to having African-Americans on his roster. According to professor Charles Ross, “For 24 years Marshall was identified as the leading racist in the NFL”. Though the league had previously had a sprinkling of black players, blacks were excluded from all NFL teams just one year after Marshall entered the league. Ross asserts that Marshall propelled the NFL to institute a “color barrier” akin to that of its baseball brethren. …
While the rest of the league began signing individual blacks in 1946 and actually drafting blacks in 1949, Marshall held out until 1962 before signing a black player. Moreover, the signing only came when Interior Secretary Stewart Udall issued an ultimatum – unless Marshall signed a black player, the government would revoke the Redskins’ 30-year lease on the year-old D.C. Stadium (now Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium), which had been paid for by government money and was owned by the Washington city government…
The flipside of this argument is that Marshall picked the name Redskins to honor the team’s Native American coach William “Lone Star” Dietz, and thus the name was not originally meant to be offensive. Bill Poser, writing for a University of Pennsylvania’s blog on linguistics, argues:
I think that it is well established that redskin is taken by most people today to be disparaging. What is more interesting is whether it has always been so, as Harjo et al., as well as various others, claim. One interesting piece of evidence is the origin of the name Washington Redskins. In 1933, George Preston Marshall, the owner of the team, which was then located in Boston, renamed it the Boston Redskins in honor of the head coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, an American Indian. When the team moved to Washington in 1937 it was renamed the Washington Redskins. George Marshall clearly did not consider the name disparaging.
Notice that Poser begins his argument in favor of the name Redskins by acknowledging that the name is “disparaging” to most people today. Really, that’s the end of the discussion right there, since “matter which may disparage” is not protected under trademark law. As for whether the name was always disparaging, it doesn’t matter. American history is filled with words that were acceptable 70 years ago that are not today. Whether a racist like Marshall considered the name disparaging in 1933 is irrelevant. At the least, it speaks to a man who saw everything through the prism of race. Marshall could have named the team the Washington Lone Stars, after Coach Dietz’s nickname. Instead, he chose to single out Dietz’s race. What would the response be if the Rooneys “honored” head coach Mike Tomlin by changing the Steelers name to the Pittsburgh Coloreds? (Another word that has evolved over time.)
But the worst thing about the Redskins name may be that it forces millions of fans to be complicit in the franchise’s history of racism. It’s one thing to be a fan of a team with an ugly past– most Major League Baseball teams fall in that category. It’s another thing to preserve and pass down that legacy to fans too young to remember commercialized racism and segregated sports leagues. Every dollar that goes to the Redskins is a validation of George Marshall’s belief that basic respect of other human beings is secondary to entertainment. It’s an embarrassing testament to the unwillingness of Redskins fans and ownership to face up to their franchise’s original sin.
There are already a number of newspapers around the nation who refuse to use the word Redskins, and most of them are in areas with significant Native American populations. There’s no question the name is disparaging. In 1962, it took an act of federal government to force George Marshall to integrate his team. It’s amazing that 47 years later, long after his death, it may take a Supreme Court ruling to finally put his ugly legacy to rest.
UPDATE: Gather round, kids, it’s analogy time. It’s not a perfect one, but it’ll do. Here’s what anyone who defends the name Redskins basically amounts to.
Imagine we’re living in the Jim Crow South and segregated drinking fountains have just been outlawed. And imagine there’s a large group of people who want to keep the “Whites only” and “Coloreds only” signs over the fountains, even though the signs no longer have any power. People can drink from whatever fountain they want, they just want to keep the signs up because they’re a part of our history and it would be too much of a hassle to change them. Of course, African-Americans feel angered and humiliated by the signs, and they fight for decades to get them taken down, but that’s only because they don’t realize the signs aren’t meant to be offensive.
That’s what Redskins fans and ownership amounts to. They’re people who see no problem with keeping “Whites only” and “Coloreds only” signs over the fountains.
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