Tuesday, July 14, 2020


To the meager extent that I can be called a sports fan at all, I'm a baseball fan, not a football fan. But during the brief period I lived in Washington, D.C., from 1987 to 1992, my girlfriend at the time was a passionate fan of D.C.'s NFL team.

She wasn't alone. Led by head coach Joe Gibbs and QBs like Doug Williams and Mark Rypien, the team was really good during those years. As a result, almost every home game was a sellout, and tickets were extremely hard to come by. There's a good inside-the-Beltway gag in the 1987 Bette Midler-Shelley Long comedy Outrageous Fortune, in which a CIA agent (John Shuck) is trying to persuade a KGB agent (Robert Prosky) to defect, promising him townhouses and all sorts of perks, and the KGB man hesitantly asks "Redsk**s tickets?" The CIA man furrows his brow; that may be too big an ask.

Anyway, as I said, my then-girlfriend Stephanie adored the team, and somehow or another scored two tickets for a home game at RFK in November of 1991. The lads were having a superb season; they finished 14-2 and went on to win Super Bowl XXVI over the Buffalo Bills. Their only home loss? You guessed it, the one game that Stephanie and I ever managed to go to together; a 24-21 defeat to their loathed rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, under head coach Jimmy Johnson and QB Troy Aikman.

I have many vivid memories of that chilly day, including watching a drunken and insufferable Dallas fan a few rows ahead of us get seriously manhandled by D.C. cops--to joyous applause--for taunting his neighbors. I also recall the palpable funk of anger and misery, including Stephanie's, on the Metro ride home. But I also remember, as we entered the stadium, seeing a good-sized band of Native American activists beating drums and chanting in protest of the team's name. I was handed a flyer explaining its offensiveness.

I wish I still had that flyer, to read it a little more attentively than I did at the time. I dismissed it then, thinking the matter trivial; I may have formulated some evasion along the lines of "gee, that community has problems they really should be focusing on ahead of a sports team's name." It wasn't until years later, hearing the matter debated in the media, that it struck me that the issue's triviality or lack thereof really wasn't my call.

Many American sports teams are named after Native Americans; the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Florida State Seminoles. I'm sure there are Native activists who would like to get rid of all of them, but to point out the obvious, the D.C. football team is a little different even from these--it's an actual racial epithet. It's not different, in any way that I can see, from using the N-word as a team name.

I was reflecting on all this to a friend of mine who told me that she had attended Miami University, aka Miami of Ohio. Their team was also called the Redsk**s in those days, and the on-field performing mascot at games was a kid dressed up in a stereotypical Indian outfit.

According to my friend, at a certain point Miami struck up a relationship with the Miami Tribe in Oklahoma, and sent their mascot performer to the tribe to train to do accurate tribal dances; they also provided scholarships and other programs for tribal youth. Even so, in 1996 they changed the name to the RedHawks, but kept the relationship with the tribe.

In 2014 Dan Snyder, the douche-baggy-sounding owner of the D.C. NFL team, started an "Original Americans Foundation" in answer to criticism over the name. But according to Sports Illustrated that funding has steadily dried up over the years since.

It will be interesting to see if the appropriately-initialed OAF continues at all in the future, as it appears that, almost three decades later, those protesters I saw that day are getting their wish; the D.C. team has announced it will retire the name. At this writing, the new name has not yet been announced.

The question of why slurs toward indigenous people have remained less socially opprobrious than slurs against other races for so much longer is an interesting one. I don't have an answer for it. Indeed, I don't have any great wisdom to impart about the matter at all; I'm just glad that the grotesque name has been retired, and that Snyder's obstinance has finally been worn down. I've heard some commentators wonder if the change will make some fans decide they're done with the organization. To that, I can only say that if so, they don't sound like very loyal fans.

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