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.

  • 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
  • Redskins Insult and Brand
    "Redskins: Insult and Brand" by C. Richard King dissects one of the most profitable teams in the NFL. The author explores the consequences attached to a team built upon racism in America.
    Cover courtesy University of Nebraska Press

  • Racism in Football
  • Redskins Insult and Brand

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. 

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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 It is an outdated reference to an American Indian.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.

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