The Washington Redskins Name Change Controversy: Is “Redskins” Actually Offensive?

By: Brian Mangan

As most football fans already know, the nickname for the Washington, D.C. National Football League franchise has been in the news a lot lately.  Specifically, a debate has been raging (mostly one-sidedly) about whether the moniker of the team, known as the “Redskins” is racist or offensive, how offensive it is, and whether it should be changed.

Source: flickr

Recently, outrage over the name has reached a fevered pitch.  (Check out this google trends chart).  In a somewhat surprising move, a contingent of United States Congresspeople wrote a letter urging the current Redskins owner, Daniel Snyder, to change the name of the team.  In their letter, the Congresspeople (ten in all: three from the Native American Caucus along with seven others) stated:

“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.  Such offensive epithets would no doubt draw wide-spread disapproval among the NFL’s fan base. Yet the national coverage of Washington’s NFL football team profits from a term that is equally disparaging to Native Americans.” (Source)

This is by no means a new complaint, as the propriety of the term “Redskins” makes its way into the news cycle seemingly every few years.  There are a myriad of examples.  See “Redskins under fire for ‘racist’ name.” BBC News, 2002; “Naperville Central High School Drops Redskins Tag.” Chicago Tribune, 1992.  Complaints about the name dating at least as far back as the 1970’s.

However, despite the self-righteousness and indignance with which the present-day advocates for change appear to be viewing the issue, debates regarding the use of the term “Redskins” are actually quite complex, intertwining an understanding of history and of the evolution of language.  This blog entry – although by no means complete – is an attempt to explore some of these complexities.

The NFL’s Defense of the “Redskins” Name

In response to the lawmakers’ request, Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the National Football League (and general, all-around, superhuman) put forth a spirited defense of the “Redskins” nickname.  In defending the moniker, the gist of Goodell’s argument is this:

“The Washington Redskins name has 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.”

Goodell’s statement was not received warmly around the internet, to say the least.  As will be discussed below, the vast majority of those who have spoken out on the issue online and in the press have panned Goodell’s response, calling it tone-deaf, money-hungry, ignorant, and worse.

Given the positions of the two sides (principally local lawmakers and internet opinion-makers versus the NFL), the topic prompts as many questions as it delivers answers:

Who determines whether the word “Redskins” is offensive?  Is it Native Americans themselves?  A majority of the speakers of American English?  Does it matter if the original owner of the Redskins was a virulent racist (he was)?  Or is the only relevant concern whether the term is considered pejorative today?

Public Opinion of the Name

I skew liberal – as a young-ish lawyer from New York City who received a liberal arts education, it is practically impossible for me not to be liberal – but I recoil at the notion that any outside group might have the ability or the right to determine what is “racist” on behalf of other Peoples.  Unfortunately, that is what appears to be happening in this case.  Independent polls have shown that not only does the population at large not appear to consider “Redskins” to be racist, the overwhelming majority of Native Americans also believe the term is acceptable.  The polls speak for themselves.

Source: flickr

The first poll, cited by Goodell in his letter, and as reported in this instance by ESPN, states: “nationally, ‘Redskins’ still enjoys widespread support. Nearly four in five Americans don’t think the team should change its name, the survey found. Only 11 percent think it should be changed, while 8 percent weren’t sure and 2 percent didn’t answer.” No reasonable person would suggest that an issue this sensitive merely be put to a majority vote, but with those favoring the name outnumbering those who think it should be changed by almost eight-to-one, advocates for change should be given a brief moment of pause.

More importantly, the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey found that an overwhelming ninety percent of Native Americans said the “redskins” moniker “does not bother them” and that only 9% found the name “offensive.”

This bears repeating: I am not suggesting that the name be put to a majority vote.  But with so few people opposed to the name – what is generating the backlash?

Social Criticism of the “Redskins” Moniker

Despite the overwhelming support for the name, the “Redskins” moniker has continually come under fire from name-change advocates in the media and in various legislative bodies.  This round of criticism has been, without a doubt, the most determined and nastiest yet.

For instance, just last night, Deadspin (and I love Deadspin, I mean, I love it) published what amounted to little more than a hit-piece on Chief Dodson, a self-identified Native American who claims not to find the word “Redskins” offensive.  Whether Chief Dodson is actually a chief or actually a Native American is question left open by the article (the article only states that “a lot of evidence” points the other direction), but that does not stop the author from 1) multiple times mentioning Dodson’s irrelevant “scrapes with the law”, 2) citing to a commenter on an internet message board as evidence, 3) speculating rampantly, and 4) implying that Dodson was a shill who came forward so that his company could get publicity.  I don’t know whether or not Dodson is a chief either, but raking the muck about it does not help clarify anything.

Other prominent and well-respected websites have been similarly militant about the apparent racism in the name.  The author of a recent article basically froths at the mouth when reporting that the Redskins had hired a firm known as Frank Luntz LLC to help rehabilitate the image of the word.  Salon’s article is so over the top that it is practically a joke, the headline reading “Frank Luntz hired by Washington football team to convince people name isn’t horribly racist” and the lead-in reading “Republican pollster hired by football team with disgusting name.”   The first paragraph calls the term “redskins” a “vile racial slur.”

Indeed, bloggers and journalists appear to begin with the premise that the nickname “Redskins” is racist and then work backwards from there.  The Huffington Post joins in, stating without question that “the Washington area’s National Football League team has a racist name,” that Goodell’s letter is “his effort to keep the team’s name as racist as ever,” and later again calls “Redskins” a “…horrifically racist name.” It would appear that the author wants us to know he thinks the name is racist.

There are literally hundreds of similar articles which begin with the conclusion – and work backwards.  Writers are practically tripping over each other to be the most offended by the name.  “I am more offended!”  “No, I AM!!”

Deadspin even framed the argument this morning (in a humor piece, but it is a position clearly held by many) that changing the name “Redskins” is something which should be considered parallel to the civil rights and marriage equality movements:

“Times change, people. There once was a day in America when the idea of two gay men openly marrying seemed absurd. There was once a day in America when segregation was the law of the land. But the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and today we no longer tolerate evil that in another era we would’ve taken for granted.” (Source)

But who said the name was racist?  Is it racist because Huffington Post and say its racist?  Is it racist because DC Mayor Vincent Gray (who himself was engulfed in a campaign finance scandal and who was called to resign) wants it changed?  Because any number of privileged white males think it is time to make a stand and be most progressive?  Does it matter that the people criticizing the name won’t stop going to games if the name isn’t changed?  Because news flash – they won’t.  Even David Grosso, the DC Councilperson who stormed into office and immediately swore to introduce a resolution condemning the name, said that even if the Redskins do not change their name, “I’ve been going [to games] all my life so I’ll keep going.”

Ultimately, the vast, vast majority of what I have seen and read has consisted of privileged non-Native Americans, politicians, and other members of the establishment and elite who have perpetuated this claim that “Redskins” is racist.  But that doesn’t stop them from criticizing those who would defend the name “Redskins” because they are not themselves Native American.

“It will shock you to learn that neither Cowser nor Hemming [defenders of the name] are of Native American descent,” writes Drew Magary of Deadspin without even a hint of humor or awareness (Drew is a white male, of course).

In case you think I’m picking on privileged white males, I am one.  However, as I mentioned above, I do recoil at the notion that a group of privileged white men, entitled to every benefit that American society can possibly confer, can be the ones on their high horses demanding change.  Who gave them the right, and the power, to speak on behalf of Native Americans?  Or are we just so used to having that power that the elites didn’t bother to ask?

I, for one, have been beyond thrilled at recent advances by our society, particularly on the issue of marriage equality.  I also believe that we should be ever striving to form, in the words of our own Preamble to the United States Constitution, a more perfect Union.  But this may or may not be one of those cases.

Language is Complex, and the Meaning of Words Can Change Over Time

This is the meat-and-potatoes of this issue.  Through language, and language alone, we human beings develop words – we develop them out of thin air!! – and ascribe meanings to them.  It is society, the listener, and the speaker, who, to varying degrees, determine what the meaning of a particular word will be.  These meanings can change.

A word which is not offensive in its origins can become offensive over time the same way that a word which is offensive can become benign.  A popular word can disintegrate into the fog of history, while new words are constantly developing.

Joshua Kennon did a fantastic job illustrating an example of this phenomenon:

“Consider the evolution of Scheiße.  The word is not offensive to English-only speaking people.  It means a “piece of garbage”, or “refuse; excrement”.  When Germans came to the United States, the seedier members of society would have cursed, exclaiming, “Scheiße!”.

The remarkable part?  It was then that “shit” was considered the more polite and genteel way to exclaim, much like “crap” is today. … It only took a few generations for the native German speakers to die off before people forgot entirely that Scheiße was the bad word.  With no more, higher offensive term above it, the word “shit” took on the crown of its former master and became the de facto reigning monarch in that branch of English cursing.”

Mr. Kennon is correct.  He illustrates the same point again with the phrase “retarded,” which most know was originally derived from the musical term “retarder” or “retardere” which, in music, means to slow or delay.  At some point, “retarded” began to be used to describe those who were slow due to mental handicaps.  Only after the word was given that meaning and that power did it then become something that could be used pejoratively against others.  The Kennon article is great, and I suggest that everybody click through to read it.

There are as many examples of evolving words as there are words.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary says that the word “chauffer” in French literally means ‘heater’ or ‘stoker’ because the driver of a French car in 1899 would operate a steam engine.  Over time, thanks to the wealthy English-speaking elite’s desire to use French words for expensive cultural terms, the word “chauffeur” began to simply mean “paid driver.”

Another great example is the word “bitch,” which began as the anglicized version of the Norse bikkje, which means female dog.  Incredible read on the word over at this source.  It turns out that early application of the word bitch was an insult to men, as being called a dirty female animal was quite the affront.  It was thereafter that bitch began to refer to females, with the author of this study correlating it’s emergence in society with, of course, women’s suffrage (“But as women became more public, so too did their critics.”)

Even the word “guy” began as a pejorative before becoming the harmless word we know today.  There are a myriad of other words we recognize with similar paths.  Whether a particular word was a racial term or slur was an issue of national attention just this week, when a witness in the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin murder trial recounted that Martin had used the word “cracker” in describing Zimmerman.

As the above should make crystal clear: Words only mean what we think they mean.  Up until now, Americans had approved of Redskins 79% to 11%, and 90% of Native Americans had found it “not offensive.”

So What Did “Redskins” It Mean, And What Does It Mean Now?

In my attempts to locate legitimate Native American criticism of the term “Redskins” – as opposed to, for example, white male criticism of the name – I kept finding reference to the same person: Suzan Shown Harjo.  Ms. Harjo is a long time Native American activist.

Ms. Harjo was the name plaintiff in a case against Pro-Football Inc., the corporate owner of the “Redskins” trademark.  See Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo, 284 F. Supp. 2d 96 (D.D.C. 2003).  In her suit, Harjo sought to have the trademark cancelled because it was “scandalous” and “disparaging” to Native American peoples. (It is quite interesting that Harjo did not appear too offended by the idea of referring to Native Americans as “red” when she created and produced a Native American-targeted radio program called “Seeing Red” in the 1960’s)

I will skip most of the legal mumbo-jumbo and say that the lawsuit was dismissed on a few grounds.  In a lengthy decision, seventy-five pages in length, the District Court which heard the appeal stated that “as we move through the 1960’s to the present, the evidence shows increasingly respectful portrayal of Native Americans… [and] a parallel development of [Pro-Football’s] portrayal of Native Americans.”  Although the District Court was careful not to make its own judgment on the propriety of the name, it struck down a lower court’s ruling, finding that Harjo and the other plaintiffs had failed to show that “the use of the term “redskin(s)” in the context of a football team and related entertainment services would be viewed by a substantial composite of Native Americans… as disparaging.”  The District Court also found that, as the “Redskins” name had been used for twenty-five years before Harjo’s lawsuit was brought, that too much time lapsed since the original use of the marks to allow for their cancellation on those grounds.

The District Court, in making its determinations, reviewed the record before the lower court — which had included hundreds of pages of expert reports, public opinion polls, testimony from professional linguists, and a myriad of other reputable and scientific sources – before making its decision.  In addition to dismissing the case, it pointed out that the NFL franchise had “used Native American imagery in a respectful manner.”

There is an interesting paper by Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore which does a better job than I ever could of discussing offensive words – in this particular instance, slurs – and what defines them.  The paper states that “slurs are expressions that target groups on the basis of race (n-word), nationality (kraut), religion (kike), gender (bitch), sexual orientation (fag), immigrant status (wetback) and sundry other demographics.”  (Ed. I don’t care how academic this entry is, I am not writing n-word).

Ultimately, slurs are words that communicate ideas beyond identifying the target group which they discuss, like for instance in the list above.  Slurs are offensive because the additional data contained in those words differentiates those individuals from those otherwise acceptable groups.  The most prominent example of this is brought to us by none other than Chris Rock, when he explains, “I love black people … but I hate [n-words].”  The Anderson paper provides another example: if you were explaining the word “mic” to someone, you would not do so by saying “mics are mics”, you would say “mics are Irish.”

There is a lot of evidence which indicates that when “Redskin” was first coined, that it was not a racist term.  It is hard to find sources which say one way or the other (the topic of a future blog post, I am sure) but one source discusses the word’s origin:

“The term “red” was adopted by French and English by the 1750′s after the reference to “red man” was made in 1725 by a Taensa chief. According to the French (1725), the Taensa referred to themselves as “Red Men.” Three chiefs of the Piankashaws wrote (1769), “…You think that I am an orphan; but all the people of these rivers and all the redskins will learn of my death.” In 1807 French Crow (Wahpekute, Santee Sioux) said, “I am a redskin…”

Is there additional information being conveyed by the word “redskin” that there is not in the phrase “Native American” as would be required if the phrase was indeed a slur?  Many proponents of a name-change insist that the analysis is the other direction – would you ever greet a fellow Native American by saying “what’s up, redskin?” – but I don’t see the utility in that.  There is a world full of words and phrases that would be considered non-offensive that it would make no sense to greet someone with:  “what’s up, tall guy?” “what’s up, polish friend?”


This blog entry merely scratches the surface of the complex issue of whether “Redskins” is actually an offensive word or not.  Ultimately, the answer is most likely nothing more than a lawyerly “nobody really knows.”  In my opinion (which I intend to keep supplementing by reading more) it is most likely that redskin was either used by Native Americans to refer to themselves, or that it was a word used non-pejoratively to refer to Native Americans.  But as we discussed above – both with regard to the development of insults (like “bitch” or “retard”) or slurs – a word which defines an “other” can quickly be made into something derogatory.

The ironic part of the discussion of the word “Redskins” is that it is likely that this round of criticism of the word will transform, or has already transformed, the word “Redskins” into a pejorative when it may not have been one before.  With the echo chamber of the internet, newspapers, and sound-bite hungry politicians consistently starting at their conclusion (“the word Redskins is clearly racist!!”) and turning the hyperbole up to 11 (“today we no longer tolerate evil that in another era we would’ve taken for granted!!”) it is all but assured that this generation will think that the word has always a slur, regardless of whether or not it was.

At the end of the day, I believe that William Safire, long time columnist for the New York Times and writer of “On Language” in the New York Times Magazine may have said it best.  In 1992, Mr. Safire wrote a thoughtful Op-Ed in response the criticism of the word “Redskins” that was making the rounds at that time, over twenty years ago.  In his Op-Ed, Mr. Safire said that tut-tutting about a misperceived slur was mere window-dressing compared to the injustices that real-life Native Americans face every day:

The corruption of the original American ethnic group is taking place under the cover of a public relations campaign to show how gambling is good for impoverished Indians. Profits go to the tribes, goes the story, which then build schools and hospitals and lift the unemployed families off welfare.

* * *

Are there no genuine friends of a poverty-stricken group willing to put aside tut-tutting about misperceived slurs long enough to call attention to the real cultural and moral crisis facing the Indian nations today?

It is an excellent, and short, read, and I encourage you all to click-through and check it out.

It is easy, especially in the wake of feel-good events such as the Supreme Court’s decision in the Defense of Marriage Act case, to get behind a keyboard and call others “vile racists” and “ignorant” or to suggest that the owner of the Redskins change his name to “Turd McFuckface” or joke that he enjoys “horsefucking” (seriously, a major site did this).  It is an easy, feel-good thing to do to decide as a member of our cultural elite that a word which refers to a downtrodden minority is offensive, and to do so on their behalf without consulting them.

Perhaps, though, it would be better to look at the public polls, the comments by actual Tribal leaders, and the actual court decisions and see that our time and energy – particularly of the legislators who have devoted time to this issue – would be better spent attempting to accomplish real-life change instead.  Despite the discussion above, I believe that the name should probably change and that the organization will eventually bow the public pressure to change it.  (How many offended people are too many?  At the end of the day, its probably not worth fighting to keep.)

But although the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, we should remember to look at the facts, rather than try to out-do each other by being self-righteous about something complex which deserves better treatment.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney who likes to ask tons of questions about complicated things, much to the chagrin of 5-year-old Brian’s parents.  As a person of Irish descent, I’ve always loved Notre Dame and the Boston Celtics, but is offended by drunken depictions of the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day — it’s complicated, ok?

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