How the NFL Promotes Racism in America

The NFL's steadfast support of the Washington Redskins continues the centuries-long tradition of exploiting Native American culture and racism in America.

By C. Richard King

August 2016

Racism in Football

Despite many calls to action demanding change, the Washington Redskins continue to appropriate Native American culture. While the team remains profitable for the NFL, merchandise sales are rapidly falling, perhaps due to the negative connotation attached to the team.

Photo by Fotolia/Nyul

Content Tools

Redskins: Insult and Brand (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), by C. Richard King, explores the racial ramifications of the NFL and Washington Redskins owners' refusal to abandon or change a brand built on appropriation. Despite facing many complaints over the years, not only from Native Americans but also from the general population, the NFL has continued to profit off of stolen Native American culture. 

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Redskin is a problem. It is an outdated reference to an American Indian. It is best regarded as a racial slur on par with other denigrating terms. In fact, while similar terms have been crossed out of our collective vocabulary as inappropriate and offensive, it still finds use. Most visibly, it remains the moniker of the Washington professional football team, long anchoring its brand and traditions. This should unsettle us. The word has deep connections to the history of anti-Indian violence, marked by ethnic cleansing, dispossession, and displacement. It is a term of contempt and derision that targets indigenous people. As much a weapon as a word, then, it injures and excludes, denying history and humanity. Its lingering presence undermines the pursuit of equality, inclusion, and empowerment by American Indians. Indeed, this continued use of a racial slur as the name of a professional sports team, the ongoing defense of it, and the willingness of the franchise, the National Football League (NFL), and their media partners to profit from it pose an even more troubling set of problems.

Sportscaster Bob Costas seemed to recognize as much when in October 2013, during halftime of the Sunday Night Football game between Dallas and Washington, he offered a sharply worded critique of the latter’s team name, describing it as a “slur” and an “insult.” In denouncing the continued use of the moniker, he followed a growing number of high-profile journalists, from Peter King and Bill Simmons to Christine Brennan and Dave Zirin. At the same time, he joined media figures, including Howard Stern, Matthew Berry, and John Oliver, and athletes, like Billy Mills, Mike Tyson, and Martina Navratilova, who have all publicly spoken out against the name. And in the subsequent NFL season, use of the team name declined by 27 percent, as sportscasters “deferred to ‘Washington’ more often.” Costas’s comments, moreover, echoed the long-standing position of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and nearly a dozen tribes. And they found support in positions taken by a number of professional organizations, including the American Studies Association, the American Sociological Association, and the Organization of American Historians; religious groups; and news outlets, like Mother Jones, the Seattle Times, and the Washington City Paper. Even Larry Dolan, owner of the Cleveland Indians, infamous for its continued use of the caricature Chief Wahoo, has remarked, “If we were the Redskins, the day after I owned the team, the name would have been changed.”

These changing attitudes coincide with a recent ruling in Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., which stripped the team of several of its trademarks (and was upheld by a federal court in the first round of appeals). They unfold alongside, if not in direct response to, Change the Mascot, a well-orchestrated campaign spearheaded by the National Congress of American Indians and the Oneida Nation, and a growing grassroots movement, armed with social media. The shifts in public opinion, moreover, find resonance in recent calls for action from members of the U.S. Congress, including fifty U.S. senators who demanded change in a letter to the organization, in President Obama’s statement that he would think about changing the team name, and in efforts by the Obama administration to block the building of new stadium in the District of Columbia so long as the franchise has its current moniker. Some seventy years after its inception, the name makes many people uncomfortable. Some, in fact, are so uneasy, they have resolved not to use it. These individual epiphanies, actions, and condemnations together direct attention to a shift around popular understandings of racial images, ideas, and identities. While all of these actions were undoubtedly fomented by a broader movement within Indian Country intent on reclaiming dignity, sovereignty, and humanity, in part by bringing stereotypes like mascots to an end, Costas did not highlight these unsettling politics. Instead, he anchored his critique in the seemingly settled truths found in dictionaries, where the word is defined as an offensive, antiquated, and insulting reference to an American Indian.

As a scholar who has written about the history and significance of Native American mascots for more than two decades, I have long known the franchise to exemplify the practices associated with playing Indian in athletics, offering some of the most vivid and troubling examples of popular uses and understandings of American Indians. Among the most prominent and profitable in sport, the organization since its inception has offered insights into the privileges and pleasures associated with taking and remaking Indianness. This alone would merit study and reflection, but in recent years, something even more significant has begun to unfold. Recent events suggest to me that we have reached something of a critical juncture, which makes this an especially opportune moment to reflect on the past, present, and possible futures of the Washington professional football team.

Perhaps most obviously, a dynamic, multifaceted opposition has converged around the moniker and logo. While far from united, this critical mass has its roots in Indian Country and has important connections to broader struggles for self-determination and decolonization. Unprecedented in size, scope, and diversity, it has made the once-unremarkable, and often-celebrated, team and its traditions the subject of debate, rendering them increasingly indefensible. In doing so, it has actively challenged anti-Indian racism, while pushing to restore dignity and humanity to indigenous people.

The ongoing debate, moreover, has fostered a shifting defense of the organization and its use of American Indians, which has appealed to and exposed the complex contours of racial politics and cultural identity today. Much of the defense casts the franchise and fans in a positive light, stressing that they have good intentions and mean to convey honor with the moniker, logo, and associated practices. And more, it has stressed indigenous support, highlighting the importance of public opinion polls as well as endorsements of the team by prominent individuals and reservation communities. Importantly, the defense is about more than Indianness. In particular, it turns in spoken and unspoken ways on whiteness. On the one hand, it invokes the attachments and sentimentality of white fans to legitimate the team and its traditions. On the other hand, it derives from and defends a series of entitlements or prerogatives anchoring a long history of owning Indians and Indianness in U.S. settler society.

Changing Times

Current events also focus our understanding of the past. They provide much-needed critical distance to assess the creation of the brand and its broader significance. That the team would have settled on its name unselfconsciously underscores how deep the entitlement and attachment to things “Indian” were at the time and how deeply embedded anti-Indian racism was in American public culture. It was, not to overstate things, a paradoxical love of imagined Indians and a loathing of actual, embodied Indians that continues to this day. Not surprisingly, the franchise, in common with other sports teams, Hollywood films, and commercial culture generally, traded in stereotypical renderings of Native Americans that, like the moniker, distorted and dehumanized them. To fans, journalists, and owners alike, the logo, fight song, and marching band all were in good fun. And while they meant no harm, a point many make today, these traditions create hostile environments that do in fact harm. Then, as now, such images and attitudes encouraged a kind of thoughtlessness. Such thoughtlessness allowed people to take the team and its traditions for granted without the burdens of history or introspection.

Finally, the critical juncture produced by recent events may be the beginning of the end. It is certainly a moment of change, a moment when countless people call for the team to change, when individuals create new team names and logos, and when many others imagine a time after the current moniker and mascot have been changed. Of course, this moment of change and what it has brought into being are about much more than the brand, its use of a slur, or even the intransigence of the current owner. The issue is about dignity and respect, combating anti-Indian racism while furthering self-determination and decolonization. As such, when the name changes, for that action to be of lasting and meaningful importance, it must be paired with deeper transformations, including education, coming to terms with the past, and expressing honor for indigenous people by honoring treaties made with native nations.

The critical juncture explored in this book has been marked by public condemnations of the team and calls for change, which have heighten public awareness of the word and its origins. Recent events likely played a key role in the increase in online searches. In 2014 dubbed the team name, along with caliphate, Ebola, and sociopath, one of its eleven trending words. Growing interest and increased attention, moreover, may explain why Americans generally remain supportive of the franchise but have growing unease about the word. A recent survey, for instance, found that 83 percent of Americans indicated they would not use the word in a conversation with a Native American. One pizza restaurant in Washington DC learned how profoundly attitudes have shifted around the term. In fall 2014, when it ran a promotion, “Redskins score, You score,” the reaction from its customers was so negative that it felt compelled to issue an apology less than six hours later. It read in part, “We are listening to all of your feedback [...] We agree that the use of the name is wrong, offensive, and hurtful to all. In our future promotions and emails, we will make sure not to make the same mistake.”

Whatever the precise cause, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer rightly concludes that words and public usage of and attitudes toward them change: "Fifty years ago the preferred, most respectful term for African Americans was Negro. The word appears 15 times in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech [...]The preferred term is now black or African American. With a rare few legacy exceptions, Negro carries an unmistakably patronizing and demeaning tone."

If you were detailing the racial composition of Congress, you wouldn't say: “Well, to start with, there are 44 Negroes.” Similarly, regarding the further racial breakdown of Congress, you wouldn't say: “And by my count, there are two redskins.” It’s inconceivable, because no matter how the word was used 80 years ago, it carries invidious connotations today.

For Krauthammer, like Costas and growing numbers of people, these changing sensibilities do not simply argue against use of the slur to describe a American Indian, they also argue against the continued its continued use as name for a professional football team.

Even as the past few years have witnessed an unparalleled push toward and increasing momentum for change, it would be wrong to conclude that concern with the team and its traditions is of recent origin or driven by forces outside of Indian Country. For more than four decades, American Indians and their allies have voiced their opposition. They have appealed to the ownership, held rallies and demonstrations at NFL games, and filed lawsuits to strip the team of its trademarks. They have created art, produced public service announcements, and formed organizations devoted to change. They have funded studies, launched protests on social media, and lodged complaints with governmental bodies, like the Federal Communications Commission. Through it all, they have worked to developed a diverse coalition within and beyond Indian Country and across cultural and racial lines in the nation’s capital. These efforts have had noticeable impacts on public opinion. They have also prompted the franchise and the league to repeatedly respond to questions and criticism, secure support among indigenous people — often through questionable, if not fraudulent, means — and wage a series of public relations campaigns.

Refusal to Move Forward

Even as Costas, Congress, and myriad others have called the team and its name into question, it has remained one of the most valuable franchises in professional sports. It has an easily recognizable and familiar brand, which is at once hugely popular and highly profitable. It is, according to Forbes, the third most valuable NFL franchise. By way of comparison, in 2014 the Bureau of Indian Affairs had a total operating budget of $2.6 billion, while the team had a total value of $2.4 billion and total revenues of $395 million. The franchise’s ownership has bristled at the ongoing critique, suggesting that the team name is in fact quite positive, enjoying support from the majority of Americans and American Indians. Far from being an ethnic slur, the team has long asserted, its moniker conveys respect and honor. The franchise, moreover, has sought to reframe the controversy through a sophisticated promotional campaign rooted in focus groups, polls, and philanthropic initiatives. The National Football League, for its part, has actively defended the team, endorsed its interpretation of the name and its origins, and supported it in court. And even as more journalists and news outlets have spoken out against the team name, according to the Washington Business Journal, in an editorial ending its use of the moniker, “The vast majority of media outlets continue to use it. Our sister paper, the Sports Business Journal, reported last week that 44 of 48 major newspapers — those in cities with NFL teams along with the Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times and USA Today — still use the name.” Finally, fans largely have continued to support the team. Disappointing play has not diminished pride or attendance appreciably. And many are quite vocal in defense of the team and its traditions of social media. Nevertheless, merchandise sales, in a possible sign of things to come, were down 35 percent in 2014. Despite this and in keeping with the general support of the organization, according to Forbes, the valuation and revenues for the team rose during the same period.

The ongoing struggle lends itself to binary thinking, moral declarations, and public denunciations. To many, either the moniker is respectful or it is racist. It is a stereotype or not. Such arguments, whatever their merits, simplify the conflict and its cultural import. They discourage full understanding of the significance of the debate, competing claims, and key words. Indeed, the struggle over the team name, what it means, and why it matters raises important questions about popular perceptions of American Indians, the cultural life of brands, and existing obstacles to inclusion and equality. It also encourages deeper reflection on race and racism, the shifting contours of American attitudes and identities, and the possibilities and limitations of change in consumer society.

Some of these complexities find expression in the city that has long celebrated the franchise. Washington DC exemplifies racial politics in the United States. Built in part by slave labor, on land taken from native nations, the seat of American democracy was long marked by pronounced segregation and black-white racial tensions. For much of its first three decades in DC, the team played off these tensions, endeavoring to cast itself as the team of the South. Even as the city has changed, the centrality of race has not, and a rising Latino population has introduced a new dynamic that has complicated established assumptions. Economic and demographic shifts, moreover, have fostered a whitening of the urban core, increasingly pushing the poor and people of color to the margins. For all of this, on any given Sunday, residents of the metropolitan area form an imagined community united in shared identification with a team and becoming cultural citizens by exalting imaginary Indians. Even as they dress in feathers and sing the praises of their braves on the warpath, fans erase indigenous people. They make claims on and through images of them but disclaim their histories or continued relevance. In the process, they forget the past and its legacies. They forget about dispossession, displacement, and death. Few will remember that the team currently plays on the ancestral territory of the Piscataway Tribe or that the capital is built on the homelands of the Patawomeck Tribe. And even as they don its colors or sing its fight song, fewer still will acknowledge the ways in which a professional football team continues to profit from anti-Indian stereotypes and stories.

The creation, consumption, and contestation of the brand, then, have emerged and evolved in a context marked by the interplay of racisms. What the team means and how individuals and institutions make sense of it can be understood only in light of overlapping identities, ideologies, and exclusions. Perhaps most obviously, the moniker and logo reflect the force of anti-Indian racism to dehumanize and deny. As such, they underscore the importance and invisibility of U.S. settler society, particularly the ingrained prerogatives of taking and remaking land, culture, and identity, which actively contribute to the erasure and exclusion of indigenous people. At the same time, arguments around the team and its traditions also reveal the centrality of a model of black-white race relations for assessing the shape and significance of racism generally.

Of course, one cannot speak of settler colonialism, prevailing understandings of race and racism, or the team and its traditions without talking about the construction of whiteness. The assumptions, aspirations, and anxieties of Euro-Americans not only introduce Indianness into athletics in the form of mascots and monikers but anchor the ongoing defense of them as well. At root, this cultural complex, as embodied by the Washington professional football team, turns on owning Indians. The franchise has long regarded Indianness as a resource or raw material to exploit for pleasure and profit. The establishment of its brand depended on embellishments of pseudo-Indian motifs. In fact, over its first three decades, the organization elaborated on popular stereotypes and romantic images of American Indians to create a logo, rituals, marching band, cheer squad, and identity. Fans and the franchise alike have felt entitled to use Indians and Indianness as they have seen fit. Even as the franchise ownership has become uneasy with outside criticism of its name, the organization has fought to prop up the brand through philanthropy that some interpret as little more than bribery and fake instances of indigenous support for its racist image. Anxiety, along with entitlement, has shaped the origin, elaboration, and defense of the brand. Jennifer Guiliano has identified the historic anxieties that prompted the emergence of American Indian mascots. She has argued in particular that the changing shape and significance of white masculinities in the wake of modernity, urbanization, and industrialization gave rise to American Indian mascots and monikers like those associated with the Washington professional football team. Today a new set of anxieties paces the defense of the team and its traditions; specifically, it reflects the shape and significance of white masculinities in the wake of multiculturalism, feminism, and postindustrialization. Arguments for the team and its traditions, then, often hinge on other issues, circle around whites and whiteness, and display deep-seated resentments about a changing world as much as they purport to pay homage and convey respect. Thus, while it may be easy to see the team name as a slur, it is difficult, even for many critics, to recognize and respond to the ways that attachment, entitlement, identity, and anxiety shape the debate and stymie change.

Ultimately, the name, the team, and the brand matter not just because they reference an offensive racial slur or profit on hurtful stereotypes. They have pressing significance because of how they encourage anti-Indian racism, reinforce white privilege, and perpetuate distorted understandings of people and the past. As Amanda Blackhorse, lead plaintiff in a current legal challenge, notes, “Native American people have been targeted for their race, their land, and their resources. So when the dominant culture believes they are superior to the indigenous population they will dehumanize and dominate us for their own good. This includes the dehumanization of our entire being, especially our identity.” Clearly part of a deeper history and larger struggle, the prerogative to imagine and exploit popular ideas about American Indians for pleasure and profit, as the franchise has long done, negatively affects indigenous people, belittling, disempowering, and marginalizing them on any given Sunday. For Blackhorse, this pattern raises two questions seldom asked: “Why have we not achieved true self-determination as indigenous people?” and “Why is it that in this day and age are we still fighting for common decency to be respected by our non-native counterparts?” Tracing the history of the team and studying the defense of its use of racial slur may be a first and necessarily partial step toward addressing these big questions. Such efforts offer an important opportunity to better comprehend the problem posed by R*dskin today, creating an important means of combating the ongoing dehumanization of indigenous people in the United States. Echoing Blackhorse, for the franchise and its fans, for the league and its media partners, for politicians and the public, the key challenge posed by the critique of the team and its traditions might be phrased as two overlapping questions: How do we stop the dehumanization of indigenous peoples? And how do we create new stories and spaces, reimagine self and society, and otherwise transform traditions to rehumanize them?

Reprinted with permission from Redskins: Insult and Brand by C. Richard King and published by University of Nebraska Press, 2016.