“We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”
—George Preston Marshall; founder of the Washington Redskins, 1961
“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
—Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, 2013
Dear Dan Snyder,
History tends to be unkind to those who make bold proclamations against change.1 You have made it crystal clear that you believe there is nothing wrong with the name of our region’s beloved franchise and probably perceive Webster’s dictionary to have some politically correct, liberal agenda when it defines redskin as “usually offensive.” You’ve never commented on its past use in this country as a term of derision, humiliation, and violence. Why bother getting hung up on history? After all, as a wise man once said, that’s why pencils have erasers.
These kinds of proclamations never wear well over time. Ask this guy.
No one has ever heard you speak about the well-known connective DNA between the team name and the man who coined it, original owner George Preston Marshall, who was called the NFL’s “leading bigot” by legendary Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich. You surely know that Marshall was an arch-segregationist and your team was the last in the NFL to integrate. You probably see it as irrelevant to the name that Marshall had a deep affection for the slave South and minstrel shows or that for years he had “Dixie” played before home games.2 You’ve made clear that you want to someday bring the team back to D.C. from the suburban hinterlands of Landover, Maryland. You’ve also made clear your contempt for the D.C. mayor and the D.C. City Council, who have said if you ever want to see public subsidies for this venture, the name must change.
As Michael Tomasky wrote in the New York Review of Books, when Marshall proposed to his wife in 1936, he staged a plantation setting where a group of African American performers sang the song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which includes the lyrics, “Massa and Missus have long since gone before me / Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore.” After Marshall popped the question, young women dressed as house slaves brought them mint juleps. Ah, romance.
You, however, have not commented on the devastating letter from 10 members of Congress this month, including Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole of the Chickasaw Nation, who said that the name was similar to having a team called “the Washington N-words” and that it “diminishes feelings of community and worth among the Native American tribes.” Roger Goodell sure has. Goodell answered Congress in a letter released June 11, in which he defended the name “Redskins,” calling it “a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.” I’m sure all concerned are very relieved to hear that “redskin” is a term of unity and respect, because if there was one thing George Preston Marshall believed in, it was unity and respect. Oh, also white supremacy. Unity, respect, and white supremacy. (In other news from NFL Bizarro World, there is still no conclusive proof that traumatic brain injury is linked to football.)
But back to you, Dan. You say that you stand with “the fans,” but you’ve never commented on leading local fan blogs like Hogs Haven and Mr. Irrelevant — both of which have said the time is now to change the name. You say the name represents the team’s history of great players, but I’ve never heard you respond to former Skins Pro Bowler Tre’ Johnson, who said, “It’s an ethnically insensitive moniker that offends an entire race of displaced people. That should be reason enough to change it.” I know you don’t think the name is racist and wrong, and therefore I have to assume that you disagree with Suzan Shown Harjo, a woman of Cheyenne and Muscogee descent who is president of the Morning Star Institute, a national indigenous-rights organization in D.C. Harjo said to me, “For most Native Americans, there’s no more offensive name in English. That non-Native folks think they get to measure or decide what offends us is adding insult to injury.”
People like Suzan Harjo, Tre’ Johnson, and Tom Cole talk and you just hear — pardon the expression — white noise. I know you’re dug in. What I don’t know is whether you realize that this change is going to happen, and soon. I don’t know whether you realize that, after 14 years of a disastrous tenure as owner that has seen your local popularity rank just below that of the summer mosquito population, you are about to be a victim of your own success.
Since I moved to D.C. in 1996, the team’s fortunes, depending on your rooting interests, were either high comedy or low tragedy (this guy was most assuredly both). But now, for the first time since you became boss, the burgundy-and-gold matters. Now the top-selling jersey in the NFL is our own Robert Griffin III, a second-year quarterback who — and it thrills just to type these words — somehow led the NFL in yards per attempt and yards per carry in his first season. Now this is a team that, if RG3 stays upright, will contend for Super Bowls over the next decade. He’s that good.
Imagine if your team makes the Super Bowl. Instead of glory, I can guarantee two solid weeks of coverage, debate, and questions about why our shared national holiday will be marred by a racial slur. Instead of celebrating the league, your buddy Roger Goodell would be under the hot lights and pressed at every turn about why several media outlets in the D.C.-Metro area refer to your franchise only as “the Washington football team.” There would be “Occupy Redskins” protests in the Super Bowl host city. With RG3 comes relevance, and with relevance comes the one thing Roger Goodell loathes more than direct sunlight: political attention. The attention RG3 demands, the heightened profile of the team, and your desire to get a new D.C. stadium all speak to the reason why there is more sunlight than ever on the shame of this name and why the end is assuredly near.
You are a man with gossamer-thin skin and no shortage of pride.3 For your own good, you need to switch your thinking on this. There’s a reason why history is kinder to Bear Bryant than to Adolph Rupp.4
Dan Snyder is nothing if not litigious.
Two legendary Southeastern Conference coaches. Two men who for most of their careers had no problem with fielding whites-only teams. Eventually, Bryant not only succumbed to integration, he embraced it, especially when accompanied by success on the field. Rupp was less open, and now he is routinely remembered as Bull Connor with a clipboard.
You are not a subtle man, so let’s not beat around the bush. You say the name isn’t offensive. I think it’s time to prove it. Let’s let the tailgate drop and the bullshit stop. Instead of proclaiming how “respectful” the name “redskin” is in a region with an indigenous population of just 0.6 percent, I am inviting you to take a road trip with me. I am asking you to step out of your gated community and roll with me Midnight Run–style on the Pine Ridge reservation among the Black Hills in the great state of South Dakota. Once there, you will stand tall in a beautiful burgundy-and-gold Starter jacket and your famous Redskins belt buckle, and sing our shared fight song, “Hail to the Redskins.” Explain the rich history of the team to all present. Tell them about how it’s really a tribute, as your former vice-president Karl Swanson said, “derived from the Native American tradition for warriors to daub their bodies with red clay before battle.” Make it plain that you mean no disrespect, and then let’s roll the cameras and make YouTube magic.
I fear you’ll find out the hard way that if your team name only exists because there happened to have been a genocide, then it might be time to think up a new name. I’m also afraid that when our experiment is done, you may need a trip to the dentist. It shouldn’t be too bad. After all, you can use caps.
Dave Zirin (@edgeofsports) is a fan of the Washington football team. He’s also sports editor at The Nation. His most recent book is Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down.