Washington, D.C.’s NFL team is named with a racial slur against Native Americans: you know, the one from the old John Wayne westerns where people say things like “the only good Injun is a dead Injun.” The name has long been controversial, but the team and fans alike have resisted changing it, and even the large African-American fan base has been unmoved by such questions as “how would you like it if they were called the Washington Sambos?”
However, there are signs that the attitude is changing. An insightful piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by local affairs columnist Courtland Milloy explains that the obstinacy is largely because the team’s rise to NFL prominence after it was finally integrated in the early 1960s produced a sense of pride, and it has been hard to disassociate the name from that pride. But as Milloy also points out, the team’s prestige has gone far downhill, so that one basis for resistance to changing the name is fading.
Thus in his recent State of the District address, the mayor pointedly avoided using the word, simply speaking of “our football team,” even though he has backed off any suggestion of requiring a name change as a condition for the team to move back into the District from a Maryland suburb. And WaPo itself is starting to get on board. As its “Ombudsman” (don’t get me started on the inaccuracy of using that term for him) now summarizes, two columnists besides Milloy (a maverick) have now endorsed a name change. An editorial can’t be far behind.
This flurry of reformist sentiment coincides with a symposium held two days ago at Washington’s National Museum of the American Indian, where the issue of racial stereotypes as sports mascots was discussed by panelists like longtime Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who was involved in a 1990s failed lawsuit precisely against the Washington team. The point was made that the best chance of forcing a name change might well be a new lawsuit that is in the works against the team’s trademark (the failure of the last one was due to a technicality).
You also have to wonder if the symbolism of a racist name for the team representing the capital city of a nation with an African-American chief executive might not be getting noticed in the corridors of power. We shall see, but my prediction is that the change will happen, and at a date not too far off.
Hold forth, people, but be forewarned: any comment that spells out the R-word will be flagged.