Keith Strudler: The Washington Football Team
The good news is, it seems nearly certain that the NFL football team the Washington Redskins will finally change its name. Maybe not today, but soon, likely before they start next this season. Of course, given the uncertain state of affairs, that doesn’t really narrow it down. But it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever have to watch a professional football game featuring a team using this particular offensive stereotype. Given the number of years activists and advocates have asked for this change, it should feel like something of a victory.
It is, of course, given team owner Dan Snyder’s previous proclamation that this would never happen, a promise he kept through waves of fairly intense public pressure. That force was typically countered by a loyal fanbase and a fairly complicit list of financial partners. But it seems the levy may exist no longer, as corporations and even fellow team owners have backed away. This includes FedEx, Pepsi, and Bank of America, all team sponsors, who’ve asked Snyder to change the name. It also includes Nike, Walmart, Target, and Dick’s Sporting Goods, all of whom have pulled Washington branded clothing from their virtual shelves. And even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who’s previously defended the team name, said he’s working with Snyder on taking this next important step. So in the court of financial opinion, which is the one that matters the most in pro sports, the billionaires have spoken.
Of course, there is one alleged billionaire that disagrees, namely the one currently occupying the White House. As part of his ongoing culture war campaign, Trump has defended the name Redskins, and Indians as well, saying changing them is simply political correctness. And while I’m sure there are millions who share his view, increasingly that’s neither a majority nor plurality of either the general public or the corporate ruling class. So unlike pretty much any previous moment in American history, the US President’s full-throated endorsement won’t do anything to change the narrative.
Without a doubt, getting rid of the name Redskins is a very good thing, regardless of any cynical and perhaps true assessments of why it’s happening and its potential impact. And to really cynical, if that’s your thing, it’s possible this name change might create greater economic opportunity for Dan Snyder and his team, and they’ll now be able to dominate headlines with a new team name to sell more product, invite new sponsors, and increase the value of his franchise. How’s that for cynicism? Leaving that all aside, symbolic change is important, especially in a case as public as this, and it’s hopefully a meaningful victory for Native Americans who been subject to this abuse for far too long.
Beyond the obvious question of what’s the new team name – and I like the Senators even though it’s hard to imagine a less popular moniker right now – there are two important quandaries. First, does social change only come when it’s about money? For the longest time, Americans have literally begged Dan Snyder to change his team name because it was clearly the right thing to do, and not doing so was cruel and demeaning. And nothing happened until corporate leaders and other rich folks told Snyder they’d leave if he didn’t do it. That’s probably a bitter pill for regular folks who hope to help make the world a better place through tools like protest or other forms of activism. But, on the other hand, it also gives us something of a guidebook. When it comes to change, at least in the sports world, it’s best to attack the pocketbook.
Second, while the Redskins are the most well-known, highly offensive Native American name in sports, there are literally thousands of high schools across the country that use some version thereof for their teams. There are far more high school “Indians” than you’d want to know, many complete with offensive cartoon mascots roaming the stands. Somehow, with all the pressure on a national franchise in our nation’s capital, we’ve ignored all of these in our backyards, in public schools no less, where we’re supposedly teaching the next generation of leaders to be better than the last. And so no matter what happens in Washington, until schools across the country follow suit, we’ve still failed. The fact that a pigheaded billionaire NFL team owner is more progressive than public schools across the US is a disgrace. And there’s no FedEx or Pepsi CEO that’s going to force high schools to change.
The good news is that at least the Washington football team will set something of an example. Right about now, we should take any victory we can get.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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