Redhawk logo designed by Eric Wahlquist
I have lately had the privilege of simultaneously seeing both a big and small town way to resolve controversy over the name of a sports team. The U.S. Patent Office decided to disallow the Washington D.C. football team from using their traditional name “Redskins” and logo as commercial trademarks. That means the team can’t stop anyone else who wants to from making and selling Redskins merchandise. It doesn’t bar the owners from calling the team the Redskins. It reduces the profitability of using that name and makes their logo non-exclusive.
The name Redskin is only one of many absurdities in this situation. There aren’t any Native American players on the team. The team plays in Landover, Maryland, not Washington D.C. Their home stadium is FedEx Field, not exactly a tribal name. They train and have their administrative offices in Virginia. And the logo is what you might call a “Hollywood Indian”. He doesn’t look like a member of any of the tribes from the Eastern U.S. It’s a generic Plains Indian profile, a stereotype based on the design of the “buffalo nickel” issued between 1913 and 1938.
The impact and meanings of words change over time. Lots of words that were in common use in 1932, when the team was established as the Boston Braves, later became pejoratives, terms used to denigrate people. We have learned to be more respectful toward the heritage of the original Americans. That is a good thing. But racism is still part of our culture and it hurts people. It’s one thing to use words like “Chiefs” and “Braves”, that are considered neutral, and something else to say “redskin”. If some members of the indigenous cultures of this country are offended by the use of the word, it should be retired with honor and replaced.
I understand that fans of the team regard the name with great affection and nostalgia. That’s fine. Situations change. Pick a new name. Find a graphic designer. Give the fans input toward choosing a new name and logo. This is not a difficult goal to achieve. The Washington Redskins are a big corporation, the third most valuable NFL team, valued at $1.6 billion as of 2013. Yes, it will cost money to alter the merchandise. I think they can afford it, and it’s the right thing to do.
We dealt with the same problem right here in my little town of 9,000. Our high school team, the Port Townsend Redskins, was founded years before the pro football team. The debates and discussions over changing our local name and logo took years to resolve. Our logo used another generic Plains Indian, again looking nothing like the ones from local tribes.
Some of the things said by alumni and others at the school board meetings were impassioned defenses of the importance of maintaining tradition. Others ranted or threatened to withdraw their financial support and disrupt future games. No proposed curriculum changes or building requests had ever elicited as much emotional reaction as considering whether or not to call our team something other than redskins. Here’s one of the articles from a local paper published last year during the process:
Our local story has a happy ending. The students were allowed to vote for a new name from a short list. They chose “Redhawks”. A graphic designer from Seattle donated his services for free, and worked out a design with the school staff. Yes, we’ll have to repaint the floor of the gym, change signs and replace uniforms. We decided on the whole, as a community, that it’s the right thing to do.
An education blogger at a paper called the Washington Post named Valerie Strauss also heard about what went on here and wrote an article about it: