Controversy over the name of the NFL’s Washington Redskins team has been alive for several decades, but it recently has come back into the news in a major way. The team, which has had its current name since 1933, has been criticized for using the term “redskins”—deemed to be a derogatory term for Native Americans.
In the 1940s, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) started to advocate for eliminating negative stereotyping of Native American people in the media. Over time, the group focused on Native American names and mascots in sports. The NCAI says that teams with mascots such as the Washington, D.C., football team perpetuate negative stereotypes of Native American people and demean their native traditions and rituals. In addition to the names and images, Native Americans who are opposed to mascots point to the oversimplification of their culture by fans “playing Indian” with no understanding of the deeper meaning of feathers, face paint, chants and dancing.
As a result of such efforts to eliminate negative stereotyping, terms such as “redskin” have almost disappeared from common usage— except for sports teams. Even in athletics, however, there used to be more than 3,000 teams with Native American names and mascots. That has been steadily in decline. Today, there are fewer than 1,000 high school, college and professional teams that use Native American mascots.
A few months ago, 50 U.S. senators signed a letter asking the NFL to push for a name change of the Washington, D.C., football team. This past June, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office revoked the trademark of the Washington Redskins for the second time. The editorial board of the Washington Post recently decided that the newspaper will no longer use the term “redskin” in its editorials. According to the Pew Research Center, at least 76 news outlets and journalists have publicly stated their opposition to the Washington Redskins name or have moved to restrict or ban its use.
Proponents of the names and mascots assert that Native American mascots pay respect to the people and help promote a better understanding of Native Americans. Many say that Native American mascots focus on bravery, courage and fighting skills rather than anything derogatory. Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington football franchise, has asserted that he will not change the name, citing heritage as the reason. Snyder says, “We are Redskins Nation and we owe it to our fans and coaches and players, past and present, to preserve that heritage.” Many fans and the general public agree with that sentiment.
1. Should the Washington, D.C. football team change its name? Why or why not? Who should make that decision?
2. What is the origin of the word “redskin,” and why it is deemed a slur and offensive by many?
3. Why do you think the controversy over the team’s name has been in the news lately?
4. Do sports institutions and athletes have a social responsibility to the public?