Sunday, October 20, 2013

Washington D.C.'s Other Battle Royale

Some of us were wondering how the Government could shut down over Obamacare when Congress voted for it, the Supreme Court confirmed its constitutionality, and the nation re-elected its “father,” Barack Obama, to the White House.  If America is supposed to be a democratic people who respect the rule of law and who believe that elections have consequences, there should have been no debate: you can’t threaten to shut down the government, let alone undermine it’s good faith and credit, simply because you disagree with Obamacare.   That’s just crazy.

Well, at the risk of seeming equally black-and-white on another issue du jour in Washington, please allow me to pass judgment on the nickname of our capital city’s most beloved sports team.  First, though, let me provide a little context. 

The Washington Redskins, according to Forbes Magazine, is one of the world’s five most valuable sports franchises.  It also happens to be the only one that doesn’t even come close to dominating its sport.  Manchester United (19 English Premier titles) and Real Madrid (32 La Liga titles) tower over professional soccer.  The New York Yankees (27 world series) are by far baseball’s most successful franchise.   The Dallas Cowboys, also known as “America’s Team, are known equally for their five Super Bowls (second only to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have won six) and their legendary cheerleaders, and have inspired fans throughout the country, not just in its most football crazy state. 
That leaves the Redskins.  Why the hell are they so valuable?  Eight other franchises are every bit as successful, if not more so, in winning Super Bowls.  In the past twenty years, they have made the playoffs only four times, which means that an entire generation of fans has grown up thinking of them as a less-than-average football team.   They play in a lousy stadium in Prince Georges County, Maryland – one of the less affluent parts of the metro DC area.  And that metro area isn’t exactly one of the top few markets in the United States in terms of population.

Why is this relatively nondescript franchise so valuable?   If you ask me, it is because for the longest time, they have been the only team that Washingtonians have truly embraced.  Oh sure, we have a hockey team, a basketball team, now we have a baseball team, and we have multiple college basketball teams that have won national championships in the not-so-distant past.  But for the most part, sports fans in Washington haven’t cared much about them.   Throughout my childhood, while growing up in a suburb of the city, I was struck by the fact that all people really cared about was politics and the Redskins, and I never was quite sure about the order.  Those were the city’s two religions.

I certainly was bitten by the bugs of politics and football – they both have obsessed me for as long as I can remember.  The thing is, though, that it was partially my love for a particular brand of politics (progressive) that made be become not a Redskins fan, but a Redskins’ hater.   OK, hate is a strong word – I don’t wish ill to their players -- but I have always rooted against them.  In large part that’s because I have always thought of them as a right-wing team. 

As recently as 1962, the Redskins fielded an all-white team.  They were the last franchise in the sport to do so, reflecting the unabashed racism of their owner, George Preston Marshall.  A decade later, they came to be associated with two other prominent conservatives – Head Coach George Allen and his buddy, President Richard Nixon, who actually recommended plays that the Redskins should use.   But more than anything else, what made me think of the Redskins as antithetical to my progressive politics was the team’s name and logo.   The name is blatantly racist – imagine if the team was known as the “Blackskins” or “Brownskins.”   The team’s mascot is a face-painted man who wears a war bonnet with feathers and carries a tomahawk.   As for the team’s logo, it similarly displays a red-faced Indian warrior.  For me, to contemplate these images is to remember what it was like to grow up in the 60s, when Native Americans were thought of as primitive people whose lives consisted of riding horses, fighting battles, and if all went according to their plan, removing the scalps of their enemies. Frankly, I might even prefer the image of an all-white football team to that of the stereotypical Indian warrior.

When I think about Native American culture, I’d rather think about other things than their battlefield exploits against the white menace.  I’d prefer to think about their spirituality, which includes not merely a reverence for the transcendent but an unparalleled appreciation for the beauty of nature.  The whole idea of looking at this proud people in terms of war, with all the associations that go with it (e.g., gruesome acts reflecting a fundamental disrespect for human dignity, the use of weapons reflecting a pre-modern relationship to technology), strikes me as the epitome of xenophobia.  There is so much that we all can learn from Native Americans (myself included), but instead we choose to depict them at their most base and least cultivated, and behold their images on football helmets – a place typically reserved for lions, tigers and bears.   Isn’t it enough that we seized their land?  Do we have to think of them as cartoon characters when they should be thought of as teachers?

In 1977, I began a football love affair that has never died.  I became a die-hard fan of Stanford University football.  I almost never miss their games and keep a tiny Stanford helmet on my TV set.  And my love for that program stems in part from their willingness to change their name. When I was in grade school and first watched Stanford play, their team was called the “Indians.”   It wasn’t nearly as racist a name as the “Redskins,” but it was inappropriate just the same, and thankfully the school changed it.  They became the “Cardinals” and later the “Cardinal” -- two boring names, for sure, but they’re a whole lot better than a name that was born of racism and continues to foment ignorance.

As I reflect on all the colleges that have changed their names from those that celebrate the relationship between Native American culture and war, I am struck by the unwillingness of professional sports teams to do the same.  Just look at the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, and the Chicago Black Hawks.  None of those names are as explicitly racist as the “Redskins,” but I don’t care for them either.  Nor do I enjoy watching their fans do hand gestures like tomahawk chops.  
It’s funny to be a Washingtonian these days when you’re listening to local sports radio and the topic of the Redskins’ name comes up.  All of a sudden, the DJs start talking like a bunch of middle school boys peeing in their respective urinals and making fun of girls.   They just can’t laugh enough at the “political correctness” of anyone who wants the Redskins to change their names.  And they just can’t stop pointing out the “hypocrisy” of anyone who challenges the name “Redskins” but not the names of the other sports teams with Native American themes.

Folks, just because the word “Redskins” is “politically incorrect” doesn’t make it acceptable (see, e.g., the use of the N-word, which is also “politically incorrect”).  As for the argument that “others are doing it so why can’t we,” didn’t we learn by the time we entered high school that that one doesn’t work either?   The Redskins are catching more guff than teams like the Braves and the Chiefs because the name itself is more explicitly racist.  But let’s not also forget the other reason – they play in Washington, D.C., the Nation’s Capital, and politics-obsessed Washingtonians are supposed to take seriously concepts like racism and human dignity. 

If my city wants to celebrate Native Americans, then do so.  But celebrate them for the right reasons – for the way they pray, not for the way they kill.  Leave the killing to the lions, tigers and bears.  Or better yet, change the name to the Washington Snakes – that way, we can capture the political/legal side of the city and select a fierce warrior-image suitable to inspire the team to victory. 
“Washington Snakes.”  It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?  The only problem is that, with so many snakes roaming Capitol Hill and K Street, it will be hard to choose the perfect logo.

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