Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Goodell Gets Involved in the Redskins Debate and Gets It Wrong

I really was going to leave the issue with the Redskins alone for awhile. I made it just over a month. But to be fair, I wasn't expecting the Commissioner of the NFL to step into quite the way he did today. I guess members of Congress (including the Co-Chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus) forced his hand by sending a letter asking for him to step in and get that racist ass name changed. But to respond as dully as he did? That caught me off-guard, for some reason. I don't why I'm surprised that Goodell finds new ways to disappoint--I guess I assume he doesn't have an infinite resource of ways to screw up, but perhaps he does.

(Side note: High Schools in Idaho know what the right thing to do is.)

I doubt the letter reflects his own true personal beliefs, but since he has taken the job of carrying the owners' water, and has maybe elevated into art that particular profession, he's stuck here with a terribly lackluster defense of the most terrible nickname in the world of sports (and I'm including the Swiss Professional Soccer League's "Young Boys").

Let's get to that letter (dutifully published by Indian Country Today). I'll start off by noting you may have heard these arguments in some form recently. They feel very recycled from the Washington Drunken Savages PR department - even the wording sounds pretty familiar. So if you've been following this story closely, there may not be much new for you here. Goodell's letter is in the italic maroon script. My commentary interspersed in the boring ol' black and regular script.

In our view, a fair and through discussion of the issue must begin with an understanding of the roots of the Washington franchise and the Redskins name in particular. As you may know, the team began as the Boston Braves in 1932, a name that honored the courage and heritage of Native Americans. The following year, the name was changed to the Redskins, in part to avoid confusion with the Boston baseball team of the same name, but also to honor the team’s then-head coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz. Neither in intent nor use was the name ever meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group. 

There's a couple of things going on in this paragraph that I would like to address. It should be noted, LOUDLY, that the brains behind the name change was then owner George Marshall. Marshall was, by any objective measure, a racist. This isn't some charge coming out of some corner of the internet. It is well-known that he resisted integrating his team - they were the last team to add black players, years upon years after the rest of the league had already done so. I don't know about you, but I don't find racists to be racist toward just one particular race. They tend to have opinions about all the races. Maybe George Marshall disliked black people, but LOVED Native Americans, and couldn't wait to honor them. That's possible. It seems unlikely, however.

(beside the point, but maybe worth pointing out that research suggests that Dietz's Native background may be fiction)

But the real nutty sentence in that first paragraph is that last one. One can argue "intent" all day long, but in "use", intent is out the window. It doesn't really matter that the name was never "meant" to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group. The fact of the matter is that it does. No one has ever argued that Dan Snyder hits his pillow every night dreaming of new ways to make Native American children cry...but the result of the name is that it does. In preparing to write this response, I've read story after story about Native children playing for a team with an Indian mascot, and just how often their own personal nickname becomes "Redskin" or "Redman". It isn't fair to anyone,  but even more so to a child, to have themselves compared to cartoons and caricatures based on race. No one cares about "intent" or what "Redskins" was supposed to mean. The effects are what matter. Goodell, I suspect, knows this.

[Above] The honoring of Native Americans. 

The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context. For the team’s millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America’s most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.

You can't separate a word from its origin just because you want to. If I started up a new football team, and paid my $500,000,000 franchise fee and convinced some community to buy me a stadium, and did all my legwork, and then announced that I was taking back the word "Chink" on behalf of all Asians (non-Chinese get called Chink, you know), and the best way to do that was to name my team the St. Paul Chinks, I'd get some blowback, even if I asserted that the St. Paul Chinks "represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context." Good to know that Commissioner Goodell would be right there to defend my ideals, and allow me to rescue "Chinks" from negative connotation, just by naming a football team after that particular racist term. I would be a hero! Never mind that I am white, and my entire management team is white, and I'm maybe actually attempting to race bait. I'm A HERO! Go, St. Paul CHINKS!

The word "redskin" isn't just historical (that's a mistake that both defenders and protesters of the name make). The word is contemporary. It may not be in the high schools on the central East Coast, where so few Native Americans are to be found, but again, one of the things that struck me as I read background on this issue is that it is a profoundly personal issue for Native Americans who are against the name - "redskin" was the word they were bullied with. The name they were called on the basketball court, or in their school hallways. The racist overtone of the word isn't in some distant past when whites were collecting scalps (though it was certainly there. I think people are still blown away when they are presented with Frank L. Baum's words on the subject). In Minnesota, in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Montana, Washington - there are kids being mocked for their race and the kids who are calling them that might well argue that they aren't being racist. How can it be racist, if there's an NFL team called that? And that's a legitimate question.

As for "Redskin" being positive, because the Redskins stand for strength, courage, pride and respect? It seems Goodell doesn't know that racism can be expressed as appreciating positives. Doesn't he have a buddy who creeps him out when he says, "Man, I really dig Asian chicks." I thought every white dude had that friend.

Maybe he missed Reggie White's legendary talk at the WI legislature? Or maybe he would agree it was alright to suggest that all Asians are good at engineering and can turn a "television into a watch." Going by Goodell's letter, he would certainly not argue that Reggie was being racist - he was clearly "honoring" Asians, right? No disparagement meant, therefore it is OK, right? Not every single Native American wants to be known for their tough warrior spirit, as it turns out. Some Native Americans are writers, artists..they may not be able to run through the forest twice as quick as a white man, or shoot an arrow at all! Screw those nerdy Indians (who often get called super-racist shit when they voice their concerns, by the way. I've seen "mud people" bandied about on forums like you wouldn't believe).

Importantly, this positive meaning is shared by the overwhelming majority of football fans and Americans generally, including Native Americans. (Attached as examples are recent remarks from Chief Steven Dodson, an American Inuit chief and resident of Prince Georges [sic] County, Maryland, and recently retired Chief Robert Green of the Patawomeck Tribe of Virginia.) Indeed, the most recent detailed survey of Native Americans, conducted by the independent and highly respected Annenberg Public Policy Center, found that fewer than 10% considered the name objectionable. Among the general public, an Associated Press survey conducted just two months ago found that only 11% felt it should be changed. 

The number of things wrong with those polls are legion, and I couldn't possibly explain them all. Luckily, I don't have to. Overall badass Suzan Shown Harjo has done it for us all.

The inclusion of "Chief" Steven Dodson in the letter seems to have struck a chord with both the reporters at Indian Country Times and in particularly, one of the readers (Geddes Lindsay) of Indian Country Times:

I'm Stephen's uncle...We are Aleut, not Inuit and he is 1/4, not full, as his mother, my sister, is only a half. Stephen isn't a "chief" but in the Air Force that was his nickname, as it was my brother's nickname in the Marine Corp. I'm not even sure Stephen has been to Alaska...I have no problem with Stephen expressing his views or standing up for what he believes in, but let's keep it honest. We were all raised in the mid-west, in Oklahoma..I personally find the Redskins name offensive, but we don't always agree on things like this. I know some Indians that aren't offended by the Redskins name and more still that are. The fact remains that it is a racial slur and therefore wrong in my opinion.

Public opinion aside, the Washington Redskins name has been confirmed in a legal context. When the matter was considered by the D.C. federal district court, the judge ruled against the plaintiffs and recognized that the name was been used by the team in a respectful manner. As I understand it, this ruling reversed the decision that informed the basis for the registration denials mentioned in your letter. 

Now, we are getting to an area that Goodell knows - look at him flexing his law muscles. But this seems mostly a PR move, as the law is one that Congress could (but is unlikely to) change. From what I know about that case, he's also being a bit disingenuous as to what the court found. If memory serves, what the court found, initially, was the people who brought the case to the court had waited too long to be offended (that's actually a concern in trademark law). There's a new case working its way right now, one that has yet to be decided. The Washington Redskins, it turns out, are still offending young Native Americans. Who knew?  

As you correctly recognize, the issued raised with respect to the Washington Redskins name are complex and we respect that reasonable people may view it differently, particularly over time. But we hope that there is no doubt that the team understandably is proud of its heritage and the culturally rich community it serves, and its fans understandably are highly attached to that history and the team’s history. The National Football League takes seriously its responsibility to exemplify the values of diversity and inclusion that make our nation great. To that end, please be assured that we are committed to working with the team, this Caucus and others to continue to reinforce the many positive attributes represented by the team’s name and marks.

Speaking of history, I almost lost my mind a few weeks back when reading the comment section in an article posted to ProFootballTalk about this issue, and read a comment from pathsovglory that read, "'As a citizen of Norwegian decent [sic], I demand that the state of Minnesota change their football teams [sic] name to better represent a more open and accepting term. “Vikings” is an offensive and derogatory term that blatantly assumes all people of Scandinavian descent are ruthless savages. And I take great exception to that.' Yes, it is the same thing.”

No, it ain't. But it does explain the mentality of a whole lot of white folks. They see Vikings and Indians as part of the same ancient back-story. There are descendants of actual Vikings living in Minnesota, I'm sure. There are actual Native Americans living in Minnesota, too. The Swedes in Minnesota have never protested the Minnesota Vikings. The Redskins meet their biggest protest crowds when they come to play in Minnesota. There's a difference between historical figures from across an ocean and 800 years ago, and Native Americans, here and present. Seems obvious to me.

With all due respect to the fatuous waste of space that is Commissioner Goodell, it isn't a complex issue. The NFL has thrown "heritage" and "tradition" out the window whenever it has served it's financial goals to do so. Ask the fans of Baltimore Colts, or Cleveland Browns, or Houston Oilers, or any number of other teams about what their pride in their tradition meant to their owners when there were dollars to be made.

So Dan Snyder, Roger Goodell and all of the apologists can stack up "positive attributes" like cord wood - the name is still racist.


Muumuuman said...

Hold on - you give Idaho too much credit! See here!

Ha! Plans on hold!

And lest us not forget the Salmon Idaho Savages......

Andrew Wice said...

You had me at "Asian chicks."