As the movement to purge the Confederate flag from public institutions grows in momentum, the Obama Administration has decided to use the opportunity to send a message to one of the biggest symbols of racism still accepted in the public sphere- the name of Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia’s football team, the Redskins. The team is hoping to relocate back inside of the Washington city limits from their current stadium at Fedex Field, in Landover, MD, but their efforts have been stymied by the National Park Service, which owns the land they hope to build on.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell took her cue from the President’s concerns over the name, saying that “personally, I think we would never consider naming a team the ‘Blackskins’ or the ‘Brownskins’ or the ‘Whiteskins.’ So, personally, I find it surprising that in this day and age, the name is not different.” Jewell oversees both the park land and relations with Native American tribes in the area, and raises valid objections.
The team originated as the Boston Braves in 1932, playing in Boston, Massachusetts. The original owner, George Preston Marshall, changed the team name to the “Redskins” in 1933 to avoid confusion with the Boston Braves baseball team. The team relocated to Washington D.C. in 1937, and won two championships before the merger and three Super Bowls in the 1980s, making their mark in American sports history as one of the oldest and most successful franchises.
Unfortunately, the taint of racism has haunted the team since the beginning. Owner George Preston Marshall was a notorious racist, known for his obstinate refusal to hire black players, to the point where the Interior Secretary Stewart Udell and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had to step in and threaten to revoke the team’s lease on their stadium unless Marshall signed a black player- in 1962 . The first black player drafted by the Redskins refused to play for Marshall and demanded a trade, showing just how much damage the owner’s racism had dealt to the team.
A similar situation has presented itself in the modern era. The theme of stubborn ownership has similarly been a blight on the Redskins franchise for much of its history. The team is now owned by Daniel Snyder, who purchased the team in 1998. Snyder has not only grossly mismanaged the team, leading them to a 108-148 record during his ownership, but has been absolutely intractable with his refusal to change the team name. Letters from the U.S. Senate, pressure from Native American advocacy groups, league officials, and fans have all been ignored- Snyder told USA Today in May 2013 that “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.” Not even the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s revocation of the trademark on the name could sway him.
The controversy highlights the overwhelming power that NFL team owners have over the affairs of the franchise. All previous efforts to effect a name change have gone to naught, but given the significance of stadium construction and the current tension in the national discourse regarding overtly racist symbols, progress may have room to work. It’s beyond time for the Redskins to shed their racist heritage and rebuild their team into a franchise worthy of playing in our nation’s capital.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.