Commentary

Washington's nickname controversy

Debate intensifies over Native American imagery. Where did this all begin?

Updated: September 3, 2014, 7:12 AM ET
By ESPN.com

For years, Native American groups and others have called on Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder to change the team's nickname and logo, saying the term is disparaging and inherently offensive. Snyder has steadfastly resisted these calls, saying the name is not disparaging to Native Americans but rather a team of respect and honor. The controversy has intensified recently with a pending court case involving the team's trademarks. How did all of this start, and where will it lead? Several ESPN staff writers were asked to answer some basic questions about the debate:

Q: What's the origin of the nickname, and how did it migrate into the world of sports?

A: The precise etymology has been debated by historians, linguists and advocates, but "redskin" is now widely considered a relic from an era of derogatory ethnic stereotypes. It started appearing in American literature in the early 1800s and entered the Hollywood lexicon in the silent film era. Generic team names such as "Indians" or "Braves," along with specific tribal names, began to come into usage in sports in the second half of the 19th century and arrived in top-tier professional baseball with the Boston Braves (1912) and Cleveland Indians (1915). There are scattered examples of the name "Redskins" or "Red Men" being adopted at various levels of sports before the 1930s -- as in a Class D minor league baseball team that played for three nonconsecutive seasons in Muskogee, Oklahoma. According to this article by sports law and culture expert J. Gordon Hylton, the first non-Indian school team to use the nickname was Miami of Ohio in 1931 (dropped in favor of "RedHawks" in 1997). Two years later, George Preston Marshall, owner of the Boston Braves football team, changed the team's name to "Redskins.'' The change, often mischaracterized as a tribute to a Native American coach, most likely was a marketing move to distinguish the team from the baseball Braves. Marshall moved the team from Boston to Washington, D.C., in 1937. Dozens of colleges and high schools around the country subsequently took the nickname, but that tide has turned. As of April 2013, according to data compiled by Capital News Service, 28 high schools had dropped it in the last 25 years, while 62 retained it. -- Bonnie D. Ford

Q: When did questions about the nickname begin to surface, and why?

A: Indian nicknames and sports mascots in general came under greater scrutiny and criticism in the 1960s as part of broader civil rights and ethnic pride movements gathering steam across the country. Late in that decade, the National Indian Youth Council conducted a well-publicized (and controversial) campaign to end the tenure of the University of Oklahoma's unofficial mascot, "Little Red.'' At around the same time, the National Congress of American Indians kicked off a campaign to end stereotypes in media and popular culture, including sports, where nicknames like "Redskins" were targeted. The nickname became the object of extensive coverage and criticism in the Washington press corps in the early 1970s. In 1992, activist Suzan Shown Harjo embarked on what has become a 22-year legal battle to have the federal trademarks for the NFL team canceled. A U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office ruling earlier this year vindicated the plaintiffs by affirming that the trademarks were "disparaging" and thereby violated federal law. The team is suing to have the decision reversed, but even if it stands, it will not force the team to change its name (see Lester Munson's legal answer below). In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement strongly condemning and calling for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native institutions. -- Bonnie D. Ford

Q: Who designed the logo and has it changed over the years?

A: To my knowledge, no individual has ever been identified as the logo's designer. Team president Bruce Allen has claimed that the logo "was designed by Native American leaders" in 1971, and there appears to be broad agreement that a Native American named Walter Wetzel was instrumental in convincing the team to use the logo on its helmets in 1972. The logo has been essentially unchanged since its introduction, except during 1982, when the feathers curled around the back of the logo instead of "hanging" off the back. -- Paul Lukas

Q: Who are the most vocal opponents to the use of the nickname and logo, and what's their argument?

A: Native Americans, backed by the feelings of their nations, have been trying to get Indian-themed teams to change their names, mascots and traditions for years, starting with the University of Oklahoma's "Little Red" in the '60s. Since then, they have been joined by civil rights activists, students and faculty at the offending schools, the NCAA, mental health organizations, commentators and now players, media and a growing segment of the population. The argument goes like this: First and foremost, no group of people should be subjected to ethnic or racial slurs. In addition, the for-profit use of these themes perpetuate stereotypes and are harmful to the self-identity of Native Americans. They are dishonors disguised as honors, and they dehumanize 5 million people. -- Steve Wulf

Q: Who are the most vocal opponents of changing the nickname and logo, and what's their argument?

[+] EnlargeDaniel Snyder
Larry French/Getty ImagesWashington owner Dan Snyder.

A: The teams themselves, which continue to maintain that they are bestowing an honor, upholding a tradition and celebrating a team and a city. The leagues, which may find it harder and harder to maintain the moral high ground on other issues when they actively defend the use of such names. The fan bases, which cherish the brands and resent being told by outsiders that they're perpetuating a stereotype. Then there are those who want to turn the debate into something else: conservative vs. liberal, red meat vs. vegan, free speech vs. political correctness. You often hear an argument such as: "What's next, changing the name of the Giants because big people might object?" An argument used by team owner Daniel Snyder and others is that Native Americans have much more to worry about than a team name. While it's true that indigenous people are a woefully underserved minority, scientific studies and a mountain of anecdotal evidence point to the fact that the stereotyping and dehumanization of Native Americans has led to low esteem and consequently abnormally high suicide rates, low life expectancy and abject poverty. -- Steve Wulf

Q: What are some of the nicknames and logos that have been suggested as alternatives?

A: Kevin Gover, a Pawnee who heads the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, has suggested that Washington change its nickname to the Americans, which would make the logo feel more like an honor and match up well with the Washington Nationals. Cleveland had a baseball team called the Spiders at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Atlanta's baseball team could revive the late hockey team's name, the Thrashers, after the state bird, or go with a name that evokes both baseball and local produce: the Georgia Peaches. Kansas City has a Pioneer Square to honor its heritage, so why not the Pioneers for the NFL team? Chicago's NHL team need only drop the "Black" from its name to pay tribute to the wind that distinguishes the city. -- Steve Wulf

Q: Over the years, what impact has the debate over the nickname and logo had on Washington players during the seasons?

A: Over the years, many topics have popped up in the locker room: from Robert Griffin III's knee to the fate of this coach or that coach and a few in between. What rarely, if ever, comes up among the players is the name of the team. As one veteran said, "I haven't even thought about it until you brought it up." So the idea that it's a distraction, or could be, is incorrect. It's not a distraction and never has been because it's just not discussed. Players are rarely asked about it; beat writers are far more concerned with what affects on-field performance. National writers venture by once in a while and usually it's to discuss on-field matters, with an occasional detour that typically is met with "no comment." So there's no constant pestering, the way there was last year about the drama that surrounded the team. Players are taught to control what they can, and the name of the franchise is several pay grades above them. Once, a player did walk past the media and made a crack about that "racist nickname," and then it was gone. It was the only time I'd heard a player refer to the name without being asked -- I have heard them discuss politics and, back in the day, the O.J. Simpson verdict (passionately). That's not to say the players all agree with the name -- that's certainly not the case -- but that they are more focused on their jobs and what they must do to keep them. They're trying to survive in the NFL, not change the world. -- John Keim

Q: What are the primary issues involving team merchandise?

A: While merchandise is usually brought up in the possible name change conversation -- both as a pro and a con -- it really is a wash. Why? Whether people will buy less gear or more gear in the event of a possible change, owner Daniel Snyder doesn't feel much of that effect either way. The NFL splits merchandise revenue 31 ways (every team but the Cowboys, which, by choice, orders and distributes its own gear). The only merchandise Snyder gets a full piece of is from sales at FedEx Field and at any official team stores, which make up a small percentage of overall sales. So if a name change were to materially affect sales, it's significantly dulled by the fact that nearly all the league's teams would share in that gain or loss. -- Darren Rovell

Q: What are the legal issues involved in keeping the name, or changing it?

A: To eliminate use of the term "Redskins," the Native American group must prove that the term is a disparaging racist slur and that most Native Americans viewed the term as an epithet during the years 1967 to 1990, when the team registered its trademarks. The fact that President Obama and 50 U.S. Senators think the name should be banned are of no help in the Native Americans' legal challenge to the use of the name. The group will offer its evidence from dictionaries, news clippings, movie clips, scholarly articles and experts in linguistics in a trial next year in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. The team will insist that the term is one of honor and respect and offer a vast array of other legalistic responses. The team will even challenge the constitutionality of the Lanham Act, a law that was enacted in 1946 and bars the use of disparaging terms in trademarks. -- Lester Munson

Q: What did the recent patent ruling mean going forward for the team?

A: The ruling is a significant setback for the team. Although the team may continue to use the term Redskins for now, the adverse ruling forced the team to file an appeal. The appeal process could allow the team to protect its name for as long as three years in a process that will include a trial, an inevitable appeal by the side that loses at trial, and finally, an attempt by the losing side to interest the U.S. Supreme Court in the issue. If the team loses in this process, it will lose formidable weapons for protecting the use of its name. It will no longer be able to sue manufacturers of counterfeit Redskins goods for triple damages and attorneys' fees, lawsuits that can put rival manufacturers out of business. The U.S. Customs Service will no longer intercept counterfeit Redskins goods at the border. The team's only weapon for protecting its name will be flimsy lawsuits based on common law trademark rules that most courts are reluctant to enforce. -- Lester Munson

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