A lot will have changed about professional football when the NFL kicks off its new season this week. There will be harsher penalties to help curb some of the game’s most severe injuries, a newly minted settlement to help aging and injured players dealing with brain damage after years of playing football, and, if Sports Illustrated is to be believed, a new breed of running quarterback that will usher the game into unchartered new territory. But one thing that will remain unchanged: Washington, D.C.’s, football team is still called the “Redskins.”
Last spring, team owner Dan Snyder made it clear just how long he thinks the name will last. “We will never change the name of the team,” Synder told USA Today. “As a lifelong Redskins fan, and I think the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.”
Synder’s stubborness comes in the face of mounting criticism and is just one example of how the culture of football is still tied to a deeply problematic American history. For all of its supposed inclusion—the pink breast cancer awareness gear, its growing female fan base, the “It Gets Better” videos—American football is a game founded on and maintained by racial exclusivity. The sport that America loves is much like the the country itself: ostentatious, violent, and for millions, a home. Synder knows this. And he’s risking millions of dollars, a legal battle, and countless eye rolls to prove that tradition is more important than racial justice.
His team’s tradition started 80 years ago when, in 1933, the Boston Braves moved to the nation’s capitol. Rumor has it that co-owner George Preston Marshall changed the name to something that might please then-coach Lone Star Dietz, who claimed to be (but probably wasn’t) part Sioux. While Washington, D.C., certainly isn’t the only American city to be plagued by a racist professional mascot—there’s also the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Atlanta Braves—its refusal to part ways with its team’s racist name earns the most ire. That’s because it represents the nation’s capitol and it’s attached to a winning organization. When that type of power and money is drawn from a symbol that so blatantly celebrates American racism, it deserves extra scrutiny.
But it’s history, not morals, that drive the NFL.
The Redskins are one of the hottest commodities in America’s most profitable sport. It tops the teams in the NFC East, a position largely due to the athleticism of second-year quarterback Robert Griffin III (aka RG3). The 23-year-old black quarterback spent much of his rookie season re-writing the league’s record books for first-year players, earning NFC offensive player of the week honors in a debut performance that included passing for 320 yards, rushing for 42 more, and scoring two touchdowns. That style of play continued last season until the team lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC wildcard game, a contest in which Griffin went down with a torn ACL. Still, he managed to be named to the 2012 NFL Pro Bowl team, a collection of the year’s best players. Profits from RG3’s jersey sales broke NFL sales records last season.
The team’s fortunes on the field have meant that, now more than ever, people are watching. And what they see besides a winning team? A franchise mired in a decades-long legal and public relations battle over its name and mascot. “Native Americans throughout the country consider the ‘r-word’ a racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘n-word’ among African Americans or the ‘w-word’ among Latinos,” 10 members of Congress wrote in a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell last spring. Goddell balked at their concerns, saying that the name was a “unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”
That back and forth was just the latest in a 20-year battle waged largely by Native American fans, the legal foundations of which rest on a 1992 trademark lawsuit called Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc. That lawsuit essentially argued that the NFL’s trademark of the Redskins name and logo is “disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous or disreputable.” The case dragged on for seven years until 1999, when a federal court ruled that the name was indeed disparaging to Native Americans and it canceled the NFL’s organization’s federal trademark.
Yet that decision was later overturned on appeal, with the court ruling that there was “insufficient evidence.” Now, Amanda Blackhorse, a Native American psychiatric social worker, has filed a second lawsuit that challenges the team’s trademark use of the slur. If professional football loses the case, Snyder’s team will still be able to use the name, but could lose out on millions of dollars on merchandising deals.
Blackhorse has never met Snyder, but says that if she did, she have some questions. “I’d ask him, ‘Would you dare call me a redskin, right here, to my face?’ ” she told USA Today earlier this year. “And I suspect that, no, he would not do that.”
But these legal battles are almost beside the point. Like many NFL teams, the Redskins have an avid fan base that has spoken out against any proposed changes to the team’s name — 61 percent say they like the team’s name, according to a poll conducted this year by the Washington Post. And in a twist that complicates this case of racial exploitation: many of the team’s most ardent supporters are black.
Marla Wilson is a biracial 31-year-old lifelong fan who was raised in Virginia but has lived in the Bay Area for seven years and often has trouble explaining to people in her adopted city why she supports her hometown team. “Usually I try to preempt it by sayin ‘I know, the name is horrible’, she says. “But I grew up with the team, and there’s a bit of nostalgia and a sense of I’m one of millions who love the team and want them to change their name.”
It’s a dynamic that underscores most fans’ relationships with their favorite teams. They aren’t rooting for last-minute touchdowns and game-changing interceptions or ferocious hits. They’re rooting for their cities, no matter how often they’ve been betrayed by them, or how driven the team that carries that city’s name is to profit from their municipal loyalty. That, at least in Snyder’s estimation, is priceless.