EletiofeWashington's NFL nickname under new scrutiny in wake of...

Washington’s NFL nickname under new scrutiny in wake of anti-racism protests


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Sam Bardley says he got serious about making a feature-length documentary film about Native American names, logos and mascots in sports in 2013, about 20 years after the nickname of Washington DC’s NFL team became a national issue.

The resulting film is Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting. Bardley and the film’s other producers hope they can raise funds to finish the film and premiere it at the Sundance Film Festival next January.

“Everyone kind of knows the history,” Bardley, who is from Washington DC, tells the Guardian. “No one takes the time to see why it is so insidious.”

The film covers much more ground than just the backstory of the “Redskins” nickname – widely considered to be an offensive racial slur. The team’s owner Dan Snyder has refused to change since he bought the franchise in 1999.

But the story is now moving faster than a two-minute drill. This specific controversy has heated up again in the past month, in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd.

The death of Floyd, an African American, would seem to have little connection with the debate over an NFL team’s nickname in a city 1,100 miles from Minneapolis, where he died. But there is a string: for one, mass protests over racism and police brutality have been held after Floyd’s death in Washington, the nation’s capital.

Further, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said “we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier” when they protested over issues such as police brutality and racial injustice. More directly, in June, Washington participated in #blackouttuesday, an online protest against racism and police brutality, drawing criticism from, among others, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic US representative from New York.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Want to really stand for racial justice? Change your name. https://t.co/XTlIJrfNx4

June 2, 2020

“Want to really stand for racial justice? Change your name,” she tweeted at the football team – and her 7m followers.

The issue has escalated since. Washington DC’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, said on 12 June it was “past time” for the football team to change its nickname. Columnists and editorial boards have joined in. Perhaps most crucially in a league obsessed with making money, advertisers are coming under pressure to cut ties with the team.

“This was in no way planned,” says Ben West, one of the directors of the film. “We thought with many others that this is an important topic. It seems like there’s real momentum out there to continue the conversation.”

It turns out that the nickname issue is about much more than a slur. Many Washingtonians have a longstanding and unresolved issue with the late George Preston Marshall, who founded the team nearly 90 years ago.

“He was a pretty virulent racist,” says Bardley.

Marshall was one of four original owners of an NFL team launched in Boston in 1932. The team played its home games at the home of the Boston Braves, the city’s National League baseball team. So the football team, as was the custom then, was also first called the Braves.

Marshall’s three partners left the team after one season, and he looked for a better place to play. He found it in Fenway Park, then, as now, the home of the Boston Red Sox. He changed the nickname to “Redskins”, it has been said, to keep the Native American motif (and red uniforms) but also to sound more like Red Sox.

The coach of the renamed Boston team was William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, a former player at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in south-central Pennsylvania and coach of the football team at what is now known as Haskell Indian Nations University, in Lawrence, Kansas.

Dietz had four Native Americans on the Boston team and favored the unconventional, wide-open and entertaining “Indian” style of football at Carlisle and Haskell. He bought into Marshall’s efforts to add a Native American motif, including war paint and headdresses – even though Dietz apparently was not a native Sioux, but a German-American from Wisconsin who faked his way into Carlisle.

“People used to use that as a shield” for rationalizing the team’s name, says Bardley.

Although the team drew poorly when it was in Boston, Marshall kept the nickname and the Native American motif when he moved his team after the 1936 season to Washington, where he owned a chain of laundries. The team added its famous fight song in 1938 (the last line of the song, now “Fight for Old DC” was originally “Fight for Old Dixie”.)

What Marshall did not add until 1962, however, were African American players – 16 years after other NFL teams resumed signing black players. Washington was the southernmost team in the NFL for many years, and Marshall wanted to appeal to white ticket buyers.

Stewart Udall, the US Secretary of the Interior, finally told Marshall to add black players or lose his lease at DC Stadium. Marshall drafted Ernie Davis, the running back from Syracuse who in 1961 became the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy, but Davis said he would not play for Marshall. So he was traded to Cleveland for another black player, Bobby Mitchell.

Mitchell was a star in Washington and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983. He died in April at the age of 84, and the team announced last week that his jersey number, 49, would be only the second in franchise history to be retired.

Only when Mitchell joined the team did more black Washingtonians follow the team. Some black residents of DC still don’t like the home team. Bardley says there are a lot of black Dallas Cowboys fans in Washington.

The team also announced last week that the lower level at FedEx Field, their stadium in Landover, Maryland, would be named after Mitchell instead of Marshall. One day earlier, a statue of Marshall at DC Stadium, later renamed RFK Stadium, was removed by stadium overseers. The franchise also confirmed Marshall’s name will be removed from all official team material.

Snyder wants another new stadium, and Bowser and others have said the District of Columbia won’t even think about building one if he sticks with the nickname. Plus, Snyder could sell a lot of team merchandise if he changes the name.

“I don’t think he’ll do it willingly,” Bardley says. “It would be great to see he had the foresight to be brave. In that respect, he can even look heroic.”

Snyder, who is often cast as an NFL villain, has a chance to to look more heroic than Abe Pollin, the late owner of the NBA team in Washington, who changed the nickname to Wizards from Bullets in 1996 because of the violent connotation of the word.

If Snyder moves on the nickname issue, the documentary would need an update. The filmmakers sound as if they are fine to put in extra hours doing so.

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