By Dave Zirin / The Real News Network
A recent petition demanding the Washington Commanders return to the ignominious ‘Redskins’ name has garnered thousands of signatures. The franchise changed its name after years of pressure from activists and tribal nations. The belated backlash to the name change must be viewed in light of the reactionary politics roiling the US.
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The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
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Dave Zirin: And now for some choice words, 20,000 people. That’s the number that have signed a petition calling for the NFL’s Washington Commanders to change their name back to the dictionary defined racial slur that branded the franchise for decades: Redskins. This is a word I normally do not utter, but in this context, I think it is important to feel the weight of the violence of the word. A word which derives from the scalping of Native Americans by professional bounty hunters. Bounty hunters who are paid per red skin. Now I get why people want the old name back. It’s associated for many, not with racist violence, but with Super Bowls and the glory days. And yes, the name Commanders really, to use an academic term, sucks. It really sucks. It’s awful. It sounds like something conjured by a marketing exec who uses words like synergy. It doesn’t make you think of the city or of Gridiron Glory. The only image it conjures is Russell Crowe in a puffy shirt and a ponytail.
I also get that people associate the commander’s name change with the person who until last month held the title of the most disgusting franchise owner in sports, Dan Snyder. The odious Snyder dragged this team through 25 years of scandal, bigotry and football irrelevancy. So I understand why diehards, now that he has sold the team, want to turn the page. But before looking backwards for a new name, let’s be clear about the facts. The fact is that the repugnant Snyder was the champion of the old name and only changed it because of grassroots pressure led by Native American youth as well as a mighty push from team sponsors who demanded that it change following the police murder of George Floyd.
But now, like a horror movie villain rising from the dead, the name is straining to come back. And I’m not surprised at all. This is 2023, not 2020, and the politics of reaction are rampaging the landscape. Even this meager victory from the summer of 2020, the changing of a football team’s name is now as endangered as all those corporate diversity jobs so in Vogue three years ago. So you get state curriculum now that makes slavery sound like a trade school, you get Tony Morrison banned from libraries, and you get a howl to fight the woke mind virus by returning the racial slur back to its position of acceptance and prominence.
So before we slouch back into performative white supremacy, let’s remember a few things: Let’s remember that every tribal council in the United States from the Chippewa to the Cree had asked, to Snyder’s deaf ears, that the team name change. Let us remember that the name only exists because the first owner of the team was a stone-cold racist named George Preston Marshall, who was an arch segregationist that made sure the team was the last in the NFL to integrate. Marshall, who was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame had a deep affection for the Slave South and minstrel shows. And for years, he had Dixie played before home games. In fact, the iconic fight for old D.C. Washington football fight song under Marshall’s watchful eye used to go not fight for old D.C., but fight for old Dixie.
Let us remember, it’s a racist name coined by a racist man, and it belongs nowhere but the dust bin of history. So to everyone celebrating the end of Daniel Snyder, I am with you! To everyone who wants the name to not be the Commanders, I am with you! But to everyone who in a fit of joy over Snyder’s departure wants to go back to the old name, I just have to say, stop it. This team has a championship past and the name is a jagged scar on that history. No other team would call themselves a racial slur, and it is the mass extermination of the lives of indigenous peoples that created the preconditions for such a vile brand. So to put it simply, if your team needed a genocide to come up with its name, then it’s probably time to get a new name.
Dave Zirin is the sports editor of the Nation Magazine. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports, including most recently, The Kaepernick Effect Taking A Knee, Saving the World. He’s appeared on ESPN, NBC News, CNN, Democracy Now, and numerous other outlets. Follow him at @EdgeofSports.