By Will Weiss ’00
It has become the story that won’t go away for the National Football League, and in particular, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.
The potential name change of the Washington Redskins reached a climax in October when President Obama offered his opinion on the matter, telling the Associated Press, “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that the name of my team, even if they’ve had a storied history, that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.” A few days later, October 13th, Bob Costas delivered a video essay, taking a stance on the term “redskins”, calling the word an “insult and a slur.”
To some, Costas crossed the line of mixing sport and politics [quick digression: sport and politics are inextricably linked; if you don’t want to deal with politics in sports, do not ever buy tickets to go to a stadium or arena constructed with the help of funding from your taxpayer dollars, do not ever watch the World Cup, do not ever watch the Olympic Games, and definitely don’t watch any NCAA Division IA football or basketball]. To others, it was Costas at his smarmy, narcissistic, best.
The issue touches a particular nerve with me. During the fall of my senior year, my final research project in Alternative Media focused on Native American media; both the portrayal and overall lack of representation of Native Americans in U.S. mainstream media, and Native American publications and electronic media in both the U.S. and among the First Nations in Canada. Even in the current political discourse, when discussing poverty, healthcare and education among minority groups, Native Americans are omitted from the discussion. They remain the most underrepresented ethnic group in local, state and federal legislatures. Their life expectancy remains the lowest and rate of alcoholism and diabetes among the highest. Only the topic of mascotry in collegiate and professional sports continually brings Native Americans to the public consciousness.
Anyone who, like me, spent the better part of two undergraduate semesters — or more — studying Native American issues is sensitive to the meaning of the word “redskins.” My interpretation of the word is that it’s analogous to using the n-word as a pejorative term toward African Americans, or calling Irish people “micks.” Think of any and all racial and ethnic slurs that come to mind. Redskin is no different.
But more than the word is the stereotyped imagery. Is it necessary? Does that honor anyone? Is it a case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery? Or is it poking fun? That depends on what side of the issue you’re on.
Native American mascotry is in Ithaca College’s history as well. Ithaca changed its team nickname to Bombers from Warriors, where the logo used to be an Indian head with the ceremonial headdress. Even more recently, we as the IC community faced a similar issue, with the proposed mascot change from Bombers to what was going to be either the Lake Monsters, Phoenix or — the favorite among many — the Flying Squirrels. In full disclosure, I was part of the 2,000-member Facebook group “Save the Bomber” and was vocal in my opposition to what I perceived to be the reason for the proposed change: making it easier to market the athletic programs and both elicit and solicit donations. I am ambivalent toward the word “bomber” itself. I’ve long thought the “Bomberman” costume looked like a cartoonish version of a fighter pilot with the facial characteristics of a cross between Theodore Roosevelt and the guy on a Pringles can. The school’s nickname and mascot were not driving factors in my decision to come to IC as an undergrad.
On top of the principle of the mascot change, the three choices were lame and bore no significance to the region or the school to which I gave four years and tens of thousands of dollars. Had “Lake Monsters” been shortened to “Lakers” that would have been fine. I could have dealt with that. The campus sits at the foot of Cayuga Lake, in the heart of the Finger Lakes region of New York State. I can sign up for that. Seems to me that Lakers would have been a safe compromise. Phoenix? What died that needed to rise again? Flying Squirrels? Check the definition on urbandictionary.com and decide if you would be embarrassed at that visual being associated with your school. You know Cortland students would feast upon that during Cortaca Jug games. And we’d have to sit there and take it. No way.
Back to Costas and his halftime missive. Costas is arguably the most recognized sportscasters of this generation. He remains one of a few with a consistent national television platform to present his views. He used his two minutes to make a point. And that point gave the punditry, both in sport and politics (see, there’s another link), a day’s worth of talking points from the two-minute editorial. The Nation’s Dave Zirin called Costas a “profile in courage” for taking the stance that he did. On the other side, Glenn Beck called Costas “wildly arrogant” and a “sanctimonious piece of crap.” Beck asked, “Why is it that all white people think that they have to correct all of the ills of everybody else because everybody else is so child-like and need to be taken care of? What do these arrogant people think?”
Conservative radio host Jason Mattera, joining Bill Hemmer on “America’s Newsroom” on FOX News Channel on October 14th, spoke more broadly. He said that objection to the Redskins name is “hyperventilating by white liberals, generally in academia, and mostly in the media, like Bob Costas,” and that “those who are opposed to the Washington Redskins name are clearly on the fringe,” based on an Annenberg Institute poll from 2004, where 90 percent of the respondents said they were not offended by the name. Walt “Red Hawk” Brown, chief of the Cheroenhaka Nottoway Tribe in Virginia, is among the 90 percent who are not offended. In response to President Obama’s statement, Brown told the DC Sports Blog:
“Why would my president say [Redskins is] offensive to him? What’s offensive to me is this: we have 11 state recognized tribes, and he hasn’t done one thing to get those tribes federally recognized.”
In New York, WFAN morning radio host Craig Carton asked why this has “all of a sudden become such a hot topic.” Carton also took the argument one step further, asking about Irish people possibly being offended by the term “Fighting Irish” for Notre Dame University athletics (more on that later in the column), while neglecting to ask his co-host Boomer Esiason, if he objects to the fact that his high school on Long Island, East Islip, continues to be called the Redmen. Veteran sports reporter Jim Gray, appearing on the same panel on FOX as Mattera, mentioned that opposition to the Redskins team name has existed for decades. Gray recalled both the protests that occurred in Minneapolis in 1992 prior to Super Bowl XXVI when the Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills, and a lawsuit that’s been in the courts since 1999 regarding the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s ordering of the cancellation of the trademarks of the professional team playing in our nation’s capital.
The reactions of Carton, Zirin, Beck, and Mattera are a result of the Costas essay, for which Gray provided a hint of subtext.
Breaking down the essay into sections, Costas made some salient points. He also left a lot unsaid, which in my opinion reduced his credibility and weakened his argument. His tone, which could have been construed as condescending and arrogant (I agree with Glenn Beck on this point), did not help.
The transcript is presented in bold italics, with the analysis following in plain text.
“With Washington playing Dallas here tonight, it seems like an appropriate time to acknowledge the ongoing controversy about the name ‘Redskins.’ Let’s start here: there’s no reason to believe that owner Daniel Snyder, or any official or player from his team, harbors animus toward Native Americans or wishes to disrespect them. This is undoubtedly also true of the vast majority of those who don’t think twice about the long-standing moniker. And in fact, as best can be determined, even a majority of Native Americans say they are not offended.
How do we know there’s no reason to believe that owner Daniel Snyder or any official or player from his team harbors animus toward Native Americans or wishes to disrespect them? To say that this is “undoubtedly” true of people who ignore the impact of the moniker is also a sweeping generalization. It’s bad form from an experienced journalist and broadcaster. Ending the intro with another generalization, that is incorrect, kills the credibility and impact that could have been made in the piece. The 90 percent number highlighted on the FOX program, and also by Beck, cites a poll taken nine years ago. The work of activist Suzan Harjo, the Oneida Nation, the Sioux Nation, and others, belies that statement.
But having stipulated that, there’s still a distinction to be made. Objections to names like Braves, Chiefs, Warriors and the like, strike many of us as political correctness run amok. These nicknames honor, rather than demean. They’re pretty much the same as Vikings, Patriots, or even Cowboys. And names like Blackhawks, Seminoles and Chippewas, while potentially more problematic, can still be okay, provided the symbols are appropriately respectful, which is where the Cleveland Indians, with the combination of their name and Chief Wahoo logo, have sometimes run into trouble.
Political correctness run amok would be if all members of the sport media establishment used the same cognomen for the Redskins as Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN.com’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback. For many years, Easterbrook has called them the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons.
For Costas to note the “intent” of the honor of the Atlanta Braves team name and ignore how that gets, well, tomahawk-chopped by the Tomahawk Chop is a missed opportunity. Also, that the nicknames honor rather than demean, is that Costas’s take? It’s unclear.
The other team names referenced in his analogy bear geographic significance and do in fact, serve as an homage to the history of the respective locations of those teams.
1) Minnesota Vikings. At the peak of immigration to the United States (1880s – 1920s), the highest percentage of Scandinavian immigrants – Norway in particular — populated the upper Midwest region, mainly Minnesota.
2) New England (nee Boston) Patriots. One definition of the word patriot is “a person who regards himself or herself as a defender, especially of individual rights, against presumed interference by the federal government.” This definition is most analogous to the inspiration of the team — the persons involved in the American Revolution, where Boston was a hotbed.
3) Dallas Cowboys. Cowboys, outlaws, drifters, were an integral part of establishing the myth of the Great American West, the American Frontier. The Cowboy is a symbol of manifest destiny. He is a rebellious figure and one with which Texans identify.
Regarding Blackhawks, Seminoles, and Chippewas, those are direct names of tribes. Further, the Seminole Nation’s support of the nickname of Florida State University Athletics got FSU off the NCAA’s list of universities banned for what they deemed “hostile and abusive” mascots. Costas could have mentioned that as well as a show of his knowledge of the issue and to demonstrate how slippery the slope is. President Obama himself demonstrated the slippery slope, welcoming the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to the White House without mentioning anything of the team name. Perhaps it was simply a Chicago thing.
As for Chief Wahoo and the Cleveland Indians: Anyone reading this blog that spent any time in Dr. Ellen Staurowsky’s Social Aspects of Sport class knows that the Cleveland Indians have more than “sometimes run into trouble” over both the Chief Wahoo name and depiction.
A number of teams, mostly in the college ranks, have changed their names in response to objections. The Stanford Cardinal and the Dartmouth Big Green were each once the Indians. The St. John’s Redmen have become the Red Storm. And the Miami of Ohio Redskins — that’s right, Redskins — are now the Redhawks. Still, the NFL franchise that represents the nation’s capital, has maintained its name.
Here is where Costas missed the greatest opportunity to use his status. He failed to mention his own alma mater, Syracuse University, switching its nickname from “Orangemen” to “Orange” in 2004. While the change was not a direct result of Native American protests to the name “orangemen” or the Saltine Warrior mascot — a staple at SU athletics events during Costas’s time on campus — the history can’t be denied. Perhaps the university, to paraphrase Costas, “didn’t mean offense” when it created the mascot in the early 1950s. In 1978, the Saltine Warrior was removed by way of a diplomatic protest led by Native American students, and supported by the university’s chancellor at the time, Melvin Eggers.
Doug George-Kanentiio is a Native American scholar, founder of the Native American Journalists Association and the former editor of the Akwesasne Notes, and, like Costas, a Syracuse graduate. In a recent column at syracuse.com, George-Kanentiio recalls the process by which the Saltine Warrior was removed.
“This stereotypical ‘Indian’ was offensive in many ways while giving SU a very bad reputation among prospective Native students. I asked: Why would a university, a place of learning, elect to use such a racist image?
“I decided this had to change so I went to visit Chancellor Melvin Eggers. He greeted me by saying, “I have been waiting for you.” Together, we created a strategy to remove the Saltine Warrior. The chancellor endorsed the creation of Onkwehonweneha (the Way of the Human Beings), the most active Native student organization in SU’s history.
“We found there were 30 Native students at Syracuse, all struggling to pay tuition and meet their academic requirements but willing to take on this issue. Chancellor Eggers and I knew confrontation would not work so, with our group, we approached the Onondaga Nation Council and its chairperson, the Tadodaho Leon Shenandoah, to help us persuade Lambda Chi fraternity (the sponsors of the warrior) to meet at the Nation’s longhouse and work out a solution.
“In an historic session (sadly never repeated anywhere in the ongoing mascot controversy), the Native students and the brothers at Lambda Chi were guided to a resolution by the chiefs and clanmothers of Onondaga using the traditional diplomatic techniques of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy.
“We did not need to buy ads or sue anybody. We did not threaten or embarrass Andy Burns, the last “warrior,” but sought to enlighten and reason while forging an alliance with Lambda Chi.
“Our methods worked and by the spring of 1978, the Saltine Warrior was history.”
Granted, the country now is perhaps more divided, more segmented and, despite advances in social policy, more intolerant. But Costas could have easily mentioned George-Kanentiio’s work and offered a similar solution involving a dialogue with tribal leaders, team owner Daniel Snyder, and representatives from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s office.
Costas neglected to mention the potentially disparaging tenor of the Notre Dame “Fighting Irish”, one of NBC’s greatest cash cows. The university itself perpetuates the derogation through the leprechaun mascot, the four-leaf clover and other Irish stereotypes. It is perpetuated because it is profitable. I would have called Costas’s essay a profile in courage if he went there.
But think, for a moment, about the term ‘redskins’, and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group. When considered that way, ‘redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage or a noble character trait. Nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent. It’s fair to say that for a long time now, and certainly in 2013, no offense has been intended. But if you take a step back, isn’t it clear to see how offense might legitimately be taken?
Organizationally, this could have — and perhaps should have — been at the top. It may have been more poignant and provided context for the name changes that have taken place in the college ranks. It was the most prescient section of the essay. Why bury the lead? Furthermore, the last two sentences are unnecessary. They increased the smarm and decreased the likeability and credibility. How much more powerful would the message have been if it just hung after “It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent”? The audience would have known with even more certainty exactly where Costas stood on the issue, as opposed to being compelled to consider empathy.
Costas could have done more with the platform he had to call people out, to make a stand, and to possibly offer a solution or call to action. Had he been as pointed as he was a year ago in response to the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, when he levied heavy criticism on gun culture, particularly among athletes, he would have truly been, as Dave Zirin said, a profile in courage.
Costas later said he erred in that editorial by leaving it “too open for miscommunication.” Perhaps that’s why he softened on October 13. As a result, he dulled the impact of his statement.
Or did he? The following events have occurred in the weeks since the Costas statement:
* The San Francisco Chronicle, one of the country’s leading newspapers, officially stated it is banning “Redskins” from print. Managing editor Audrey Cooper called the word “unfit for print” and a “patently racist term.”
* The Oneida Nation and the NFL met on October 30th to discuss strategies for changing the team name. The NFL defended the continuance of the name. Neither NFL Commissioner nor team owner Daniel Snyder attended the meeting. Snyder has since said he will never change the team name.
Costas’s voice was important in that it added muscle to the groundswell of support for the name change. It called attention to a long-standing issue. But Costas’s voice alone was not, and will not, be enough to move the needle. If he wants to continue to work toward affecting change, he should continue to advocate his stance and provide even more support for his argument, if he believes what he said, that the term is an insult and a slur.
Will Weiss graduated IC in 2000 with a B.A. in Journalism and minors in Sport Studies and Spanish, and is a contributor to the ICSMMblog. He has worked in or around sport and sport media for the majority of his career.