America at Large: Washington still unwilling to ditch their Redskin baggage

Club appealing a court decision to ban their trademark which offends Native Americans

When former governor Jeb Bush is asked about the campaign to get the Washington Redskins to change their name to something less offensive to Native Americans, he tries to turn the question into a comic bit.

Attempting to tap into public dissatisfaction with the political gridlock that afflicts the nation’s capital, he riffs about the truly insulting part being Washington rather than Redskins. If he’s feeling especially jocular, he has even been known to suggest the team be rebranded the Northern Virginia Redskins. Geddit?

Aside from demonstrating why Bush already looks like a beaten docket presidential candidate, his faux stand-up routine also illustrates how a sizable constituency of Americans don’t quite understand or, in some cases, really believe that the name of an NFL franchise can somehow be demeaning to anybody.

"What's all the stink over the Redskin name?" asked Mike Ditka, legendary coach of the Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears.


“We’re going to let the liberals of the world run this world, It was said out of reverence, out of pride to the American Indian. Even though it was called a Redskin, what are you going to call them, a Proudskin?

“This is so stupid it’s appalling, and I hope that owner keeps fighting for it and never changes it, because the Redskins are part of American football history, and it should never be anything but the Washington Redskins.”

Same moniker

Eighty-three years have passed since the club then based in Boston and known as the Braves renamed themselves the Redskins to avoid confusion with a baseball team that had the same moniker.

For more than a quarter of that history, there have been demands for them to change again. Although the first lawsuit trying to force their hand was filed back in 1992, the movement has had renewed momentum since 2013.

In its defence, the team has claimed that original owner George Preston Marshall merely wanted to honour Native Americans, and to acknowledge the fact the team's second coach, William Dietz, was a member of the Sioux nation.

Historical research suggests the closest Dietz may have come to Indian blood was passing himself off as one to avoid serving in the military in World War I. It doesn’t help their case either that Marshall was known for a long time as “the leading racist in the NFL” because of his refusal to sign African-American players.

The more holes poked in their story, the noisier the clamour, the more resistant the club and its present owner Daniel Snyder have been to getting rid of the distinctive pig-tailed and feathered chief off the side of their helmets.

Their steadfast refusal to countenance the very idea has seen them lambasted (some sports commentators now refuse to say Redskins when discussing the side), lampooned (they became the first grid-iron team to inspire an entire episode of South Park) and lacerated (Snyder has come in for hilarious abuse from John Oliver on HBO's Last Week Tonight).

Through it all, they have refused to budge.

The whole brouhaha spawned an etymological debate about the origins of the word. Scholars contend “redskin” began as a way for Native Americans to describe themselves but over time it took on a more pejorative meaning, specifically when it became the official government term for those the authorities were too often bent on moving from ancestral lands or eradicating altogether.

Against the background of so much troubling history, it’s understandable that a lot of professional teams, high schools and colleges with nicknames and logos related to Native American tribes have opted to change them in recent times.

Not all of them however.

"If we can't get states to pass laws to prohibit these mascots then how can we incentivise schools to think differently?" asked president Barack Obama last week.

“What Adidas has done is it said to the 2000-plus schools that still have Native American and Alaska Native mascots – it said we will work with you to redesign your entire sports brand. I don’t know if Adidas made the same offer to a certain NFL team in Washington – but they might want to think about that as well.”

Obama’s sideswipe provoked a typically feisty response from the unapologetic Redskins, labelling Adidas hypocrites for their involvement in this initiative even as the company still profits from its association with teams like the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. While the current Stanley Cup champions contend they are named in honour of Black Hawk, a former chief of the Sauk, some Native Americans argue that club should be considering its options too. Whether it and others will have to could depend on how the Redskins fare in court.

Disparage people

Having had the Redskins’ trademark revoked by the United States Patent and Trademark Office last year, a federal judge upheld that decision on the grounds protection doesn’t extend to names that may disparage people.

The club’s appeal against that verdict is based largely upon citing the myriad vulgar and explicit trademarks that have never been deemed inappropriate by the government.

The bizarre list includes such products as “Dumb Blonde” beer, “Dangerous Negro” t-shirts, “Slutseeker” dating, “Midget Man” condoms, “Redneck Army” clothing and a whole panoply of pornographic titles.

Already, this unique legal stratagem has become known, in reference to one of the trademarks they mention, as the “Take Yo Panties Off” defence.

Which kind of proves that, for Washington, winning, by whatever means necessary, remains the name of the game.