One requires that we replace the indefensibly racist name of my favorite football team, the Washington Redskins. The other requires that a baseball team I’ve often cheered for, the Cleveland Indians, scrap and shred its racially offensive logo of Chief Wahoo, the cartoonish Native American caricature that adorns Indians’ caps and sleeves.
Both of these iconic sports symbols were considered culturally fine and racial acceptable when they were adopted in the 1930s and ’40s. Today, both have been declared offensive by Native Americans and others. Our takeaway here is that times change and we must, too.
But here in Washington, we are much like our Founding Fathers who famously gave us “all men are created equal” even as they owned slaves. We proudly cheer our Redskins, without realizing ours is the only pro team named for one race’s skin color. We’d never cheer a team that said it was honoring Asian-Americans by calling itself the Washington Yellowskins. Nor one that honored African-American ancestors (who helped build the Capitol) by naming its team Washington Darkies. Yet every autumn we stand and sing “Hail to the Redskins!”
It began innocently. In Boston, in 1932, a new professional sports team took the name of its National League baseball landlords and began as football’s Boston Braves. The next year, the football Braves moved to the rival Red Sox’s Fenway Park and, needing a new name, chose something close: the Boston Redskins. Three years later, the Redskins moved to Washington.
Today, we know our culture won’t tolerate a name derived from skin color. Yet Redskins owner Daniel Snyder told USA Today he would “never” change the name. Still, we’ll offer a couple of replacement names in a minute.
But first, consider the much easier-to-solve racism problem confronting baseball’s Cleveland Indians. The team created its cartoonish icon in 1947 — the same year Cleveland star Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League. Doby now wants the Chief Wahoo logo scrapped, saying: “It reminds me of blackface minstrel shows.”
In recent years, the cartoon has been challenged by Native Americans, civil rights leaders and church organizations. “Chief Wahoo is a racist stereotype and logo,” Bernice Powell Jackson, executive director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, wrote in 2000. “The bug-eyed, buck-toothed, grinning red figure honors no one. It destroys the self-esteem of native American children. ...”
This year, Cleveland Indians President Mark Shapiro said, “Chief Wahoo isn’t going anywhere.” But Wahoo has vanished when it has suited the Indians’ ka-ching purposes. When the team moved its training facility from Florida to Arizona, where there is a sizable Native American population, Chief Wahoo’s image no longer adorned its new training park. The offensive cartoon also must vanish from Indians’ caps and sleeves.
Now let’s return to Washington’s far more difficult dilemma. Often, teams in this bind have chosen change that conveys continuity. In Ohio, the Miami University Redskins became the Red Hawks. In New York City, the St. Johns Redmen became the Red Storm. So as we look to keep something from the familiar name, yet also hope to find something familiar about the tradition of our nation’s capital, one solution leaps to the fore: Hail to the Washington Red Tape!
But upon further reflection, it is possible Mr. Snyder will not be partial to satire when it comes to his investment. The Redskins are rich in tradition — literally, one of the NFL’s most commercially successful franchises. Yet several media outlets have announced they won’t use the name “Redskins” anymore.
A renaming is a rebranding. That’s why it must be done — but with care. And it is why I am proposing this serious switch.
Washington fans in the war-dominated 21st century have embraced the tradition of standing and cheering wounded warriors who are invited guests at almost every pro sports event. So let’s make it official.
Let Washington honor those who fought America’s battles in faraway wars by renaming its NFL team in a way that brings honor to us all: Hail the Washington Warriors!
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.