The Football Name Debate: Are We Missing the Point?

One of several indigenous college students at the CAP panel.

“The debate is over about the R-word; it’s now about whether if it’s proper to have a football team in this country carry on using a defined slur.” That was the closing statement by Jacqueline Pata, the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Her comment capped off a forum at the Center for American Progress, Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth. The Center released a new report that examined several bodies of research about the harmful impact of mascot representations on the self-esteem of AI/AN youth, how they create a hostile learning environment, and the decades-long movement to retire them. The report by Erik Stegman and Victoria Phillips looks at recent key findings and incorporates statements from several Native youths, providing context that is relevant today regarding the use of these mascots and imagery.

Sitting on today’s panel was Pata; Travis Waldron, Sports Reporter,; Mark Macarro, Chairman, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians; Dr. Michael Friedman, Clinical Psychologist; and Erik Stegman, Associate Director, Center for American Progress. The forum started with very poignant remarks by fifteen-year-old Dahkota Franklin Kicking Bear Brown, a student at Argonaut High School in California, and a Champion for Change at the Center for Native American Youth. Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) also spoke briefly at the event.

Over the last year, the debate over the use of the slur by the Washington professional football team has largely centered on issues of economics and fan nostalgia. The larger issue at hand, however, is beyond the sports soundbites that dominate this discussion. Data and research now shows that the use of such racist and derogatory team names (and by association, ‘traditions’ and fan antics) have real and detrimental effects on Native youth today. With fifty percent of the Native population being of 25 years of age or younger, the danger of perpetuating this practice and continuing the cycle of defeatism, hostile learning environments, and poor self-esteem is all too real.

(R to L): Travis Waldron, Sports Reporter,; Mark Macarro, Chairman, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians; Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians

Studies are also showing that these mascots are undermining the educational experience of all students, particularly those with little or no contact with indigenous and Native peoples. These stereotypical representations are too often being understood by the population as factual representations of Native culture and people, contributing to the development cycle of cultural biases and prejudices.

Think that’s not really an issue in today’s progressive twenty-first century? Brown shared some of the experiences that happened in his high school. “Our cheerleaders dressed up one of our own in a Halloween ‘Pokahottie’ costume, tied her to a stake after dragging her out on the field in shackles against her will. They proceeded to dance around her, acting as if they were beating her, treating her as a slave. It’s one of the sickest halftime shows I’ve ever seen.” An avid football fan, he nonetheless dreads the game against rivals Calaveras, who use the R-word slur as their team name. “The most offensive stuff doesn’t even come from the [other team fans]. It comes from their rival schools, mine included. I have heard my own friends yelling around me, ‘Kill the Redskins!’ or “Send them on the Trail of Tears!'”

It took a lot of courage for Brown to address the audience, knowing he would be returning home to California and his schoolmates, many whom taunt him and other Natives on a consistent basis for his ethnicity. “When they hear the world ‘Native’ all they see is a football helmet or a big-nosed head on a jersey. Even the staff isn’t immune,” he said. “I was with a group of Natives at school and a teacher asked us what we were talking about. We said we were discussing some Native issues, and the teacher responded with ‘Oh, you are all Indians? I wouldn’t have known by looking at you.'”

Congresswoman McCollum put the debate into perspective. The entire issue was past the debate of the use of the name, and has moved into education on the issue. “It’s important for young people to have a positive image about themselves,” she said. How can that happen if the word is given a free pass in schools and by organizations, and yet other dictionary-defined slurs are considered forbidden? “This is an educational experience we have to be willing to take a journey on.”

Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians and Dr. Michael Friedman, Clinical Psychologist

The panel largely discussed how detrimental these mascots and imagery are towards Native youth. A decade ago, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a resolution calling for the immediate retirement of all team names, mascots, and other derogatory representations. They found through several key findings that such imagery “undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities–especially those who have had little or not contact with Indigenous peoples.” In 2001, a statement from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said:

The stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious, or other groups when promoted by our public educational institutions, teach all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, a dangerous lesson in a diverse society. Schools have a responsibility to educate their students; they should not use their influence to perpetuate misrepresentations of any culture or people. Children at the elementary and secondary level usually have no choice about which school they attend. (Statement of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the Use of Native American Images and Nicknames as Sports Symbols, 2001)

The APA also found that these misrepresentations create hostile learning environments that decrease student academic achievement and the ability to succeed. Native youth today have some of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country and endure poverty at nearly double the national rate.

Ultimately, however, it’s tribal leadership that needs to be there to support their youth. Pata noted that as a tribal leader herself, it’s important that every decision the tribe makes is for the next generation. “Tribal leaders are recognizing the issues our youth are facing today,” she said. “We want their lives to be different, and this is one way [by opposing mascotry] to do that.”

Friedman emphatically noted that the suicide rate among Native youth is two-and-a-half times the national average. “This isn’t a political correctness issue,” he said. “It’s a public health issue.” He noted that these high rates are set against the backdrop of the highest poverty rates, poorest health, and lowest educational outcomes in the country. Combined with rampant substance abuse and poor self- and community-esteem, the challenges are nearly insurmountable for Native youth, holding back their entire community and preventing future opportunities. This carries forward as they age, keeping tribal identities suppressed and perpetuating these ills.

Dahkota Franklin Kicking Bear Brown, Student, Argonaut High School; Champion for Change, Center for Native American Youth

Before one can brush off such statements, an understanding of the unique perspective of Native communities is necessary. A recent article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology said:

The military action, missionary efforts, the Federal Indian Boarding School Movement, the Dawes Act, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act forever changed the economic, physical, and social lives of AI/AN people. Once self-reliant and self-sufficient, the policies of the federal government forced tribes/indigenous people toward removal, relocations, isolation, and in some cases, termination and extinction, resulting in social, economic, and spiritual deprivations. (Journal of Clinical Psychology 66(8), 2010)

But there’s hope. Native youth today are making their stands. “Our younger generation is now saying what’s acceptable,” said Pata. “Schools are beginning to talk about what’s right, tribal history, and other discussions that helps bolster our youth to formulate change.” The road is hard, however, because the Native minority population in this country is so small; to make their voices heard, a consistent push for change is necessary.

“Part of the problem,” Macarro said, “is that we are invisible by the numbers, so these characterizations and stereotypes perpetuate in society,” making Natives ignored in the conversation. This concept of invisibility is a big deal among tribal leaders, who grew up in the previous era, noted for termination, removal, and revocation policies. Even today, many Native-dominant schools – founded and started by non-Natives – retain similar racial slurs as their mascots and names. “It’s a fact that many Natives do submit themselves to conformity by wearing the apparel, accepting the slur as a team name, perpetuating the racism,” said Macarro. “But what is wrong on the reservation is still wrong in the world.” It doesn’t diminish the argument for change.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN)

Despite the fact of such acceptance, trumpeted by some media and opponents of change, Natives are out there facing the task ahead. “It’s not just a fight about the Washington football team mascot,” said Stedman. He indicated other steps that can be taken, or are being undertaken by Native advocates. The report outlined several at the local, state, and federal levels, including working with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education. Similar actions such as that taken by Oregon in banning outright all discriminatory mascots are mentioned, and suggests nonprofit legal assistance programs provide education programs for students and families about their rights, and help file complaints to OCR and other relevant agencies.

Additional research is needed, of course. Stedman recommends that the “federal government work across agencies to identify new research topics to better understand the extend to which these mascots and team names perpetuate bullying, hostile learning environments, and negative attitudes about AI/AN people.”

While the spotlight remains on Dan Snyder and his organization, the fight has progressed beyond the simple economic and soundbite war of using the current moniker. The deeper issue, when one takes the time to wade into the waters, is the ripple effect that washes over Native communities in this country, affecting tomorrow’s Native leaders and continually damaging their communities. The cycle has to end, and eliminating these racial stereotypes is a giant step in the right direction. With all the rhetoric, politicizing, media soundbites, and PR spin, let’s not miss the point.

“The use of these slurs and logos homogenizes tribes and their individual identities into a false grouping and stereotype,” said Macarro. “What it comes down to, fundamentally, is respectfulness.”

Change the name.

Hey R**skin Fans, Snyder Cares! (Not Really)

#changethename by Michael E. Woestehoff (used with permission)

#changethename by Michael E. Woestehoff (used with permission)

(Originally posted at WeLoveDC on 3/26/14)

With little fanfare, Washington pro football team owner Dan Snyder slipped a letter out to the team’s fan mailing list this past Sunday. It was a masterful work of self-service. In it, Snyder finally realized there were problems in Indian Country, based on a supposed 26 visits to various reservations around the country. The visits – all cherry-picked to councils who “agree” with him about the “non-offensive” nature of the team’s moniker – apparently opened his eyes to the plight and ills of reservation residents.

Let’s set aside for a moment that Snyder refuses to meet with tribal councils who oppose the name, including the still-open invitation from the Oneida Nation in New York. Snyder quickly jumped to the “hey, there’s more important issues to deal with than changing a football team’s name” defense, pointing out the horrific poverty rates, unemployment, poor health, and abysmal education found on many Native reservations. And yes, these are real problems. Big ones.

Changing the name would be a step in the right direction.

But Snyder, in his lovably (read: infuriating) sly and slick manner, forces you to think that you can only solve one or the other. Either change the name, or address these other problems is the implication. As CBS Chicago columnist Tim Baffoe says so eloquently, “Because sound logic dictates that we should ignore less significant issues that can easily be resolved in favor of the big ones that will take a whole lot of time and money to fix.”

So to that end, Snyder pats himself on the back for his revelation experience, and shares his latest plan: the formulation of a charity (the Washington [slur] Original Americans Foundation) to dole out money and goods to tribes in need. And, I suspect, only to those who “agree 100%” with the team’s racist name. Oh, and notice the addition of “original Americans.” If the R-word name is meant to honor, then why not just call it the R-word Foundation?

This latest move by Snyder is tantamount to bribery, really. And obfuscation. What, we can’t demand the removal of something that symbolizes hundreds of years of rape, theft, and genocide just because you’ve now had your eyes opened and decided to help the poor and disenfranchised? It’s like saying it’s okay to go wear blackface to a costume party because you donate to the United Negro College Fund or the NAACP. While Snyder may claim a supermajority of acceptance from his hand-picked supporters, it’s clear a significant chunk of Indian Country disagrees with him.

I’m all for new avenues of assistance to the reservations; God knows every cent is sorely needed. But using this latest charity ploy as a deflection tactic to tacitly approve his stubborn insistence that the team’s name isn’t racist or derogatory is reprehensible.

But then again, this is Dan Snyder. And as we know, he’ll “NEVER” change. And you can put that in all caps, people.

What’s In a Football Name? Snyder Thinks He Knows – And He’s Wrong

(Originally posted on 10/11/13 at WeLoveDC.)

So this popped out the other day.

It’s no secret how I feel about the whole name thing with the Washington football team. I oppose it. I think it’s racist. I have several personal issues with the name. But that’s not why I decided to post something about it.

The letter is a poor public relations attempt, mostly to mollify diehard team fans who will, unto the bitter end, support the racist moniker. Not out of reason, but blind emotion.

Hey, I get it. I understand why. Team fandom is a complicated, deep, personal thing that involves a lot of emotional investment and history. It’s difficult to hear that your beloved franchise is doing something wrong – simply by using a name (and by extension, mascot and other fan accoutrements).

The problem comes when that moniker is unveiled to be racist. The Washington issue isn’t anything new; it’s been around for decades. The movement today has found new momentum and has begun to find rightful traction in righting a wrong. (Just like the Civil Rights Movement began finding traction nearly one hundred years after Emancipation.)

The first third of Snyder’s letter is a play on his loyal fanbase’s emotional strings. “I still remember…the passion of the fans…the ground beneath me seemed to move and shake…he’s been gone for 10 years now…” All phrases and words evoking emotions and certainly causing the reader to recall their own cherished memories. Setting them into their defensive stance, so that the rest of the letter, which uses standard PR spin and deft deflection, only ratchets up the emotional volume for their impassioned – and misguided – defense.

Oh, and then there’s the trite “Our past isn’t just where we came from–it’s who we are” phrase. Bold and italicized, even. Because it’s important!

And yet that same phrase should be viewed in the light of the atrocities and attempted genocide of the native population that tried to co-exist here during the nation’s past. Dan, Native Americans have a past, too – and it isn’t just where they came from. It’s also who they are.

Okay, first “point” made by Dan: the team name was changed from “Braves” to its current incarnation because “four players and our Head Coach were Native Americans.” Right.

Problem the first: There’s strong evidence to show that William “Lone Star” Dietz actually posed as a Sioux native for several reasons–none of them altruistic. Dietz was nothing more than a “wannabe Native.”

Second “point” made by Dan: George Allen consulted with the Red Cloud Athletic Fund on Pine Ridge to design the emblem. And was then honored by the organization a few years later. He then uses that to claim the emblem and plaque as a “symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect…”

Problem the second: George Allen actually created the Red Cloud Athletic Fund. So…yeah. The organization that owes its existence to Allen was used to create the emblem and then “honor” the man. There’s a lot you could infer or assume from that, which I’ll refrain. Basically, Snyder’s making his case based in part on consultations Allen had with a group he created. And was then honored. By same group.

Third “point”: Two polls are mentioned, the infamous Annenberg poll from 2004, and the AP survey from back in April this year. These are trotted out to show that the Native community overwhelmingly supports the team name.

Problem the third: The Annenberg poll is suspect, based primarily on its methodology. This article does a great job outlining all the problems with its methods, including the entire “self-described” hooey. (Oh look. Wannabe Natives popping up again.) And the AP poll? While 79% said the name shouldn’t change, he fails to mention that just about 80% said that if the name WAS changed, they’d still support the team. So…yeah. Clearly changing the team name would oh-so-upset the fanbase to the point of abandoning it. (Not.)

Fourth “point”: Snyder trots out a columnist’s interview with three tribal leaders, who were all quoted as not being offended by the name.

Problem the fourth: Well sure, of course there will be Natives not offended! Just like you can find Democrats who dislike Obama, or Republicans who do support the ACA. So what? There have been plenty of statements by Native leaders who have stated that they-and in a few cases, the entire tribe-ARE offended.

Dan then finishes off his teary-eyed missive with more emotional phrases and calls to the fan heart strings: “participated in some of the greatest games in NFL history”…”won five World Championships”…”the passion of our loyal fans”…”speak proudly”… Yep, build up the emotional groundswell there, Danny-boy.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the final, personal tug: “So when I consider the Washington [***] name, I think of what it stands for. I think of the Washington [***] traditions and pride I want to share with my three children, just as my father shared with me – and just as you have shared with your family and friends.”

Oh, and as a kicker, he hammers once again about the “81 year history” and “the team name…continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.”

Funny. When I hear the name, I cringe inside. I think of other names and places: Wounded Knee. Black Hills. Trail of Tears. Gnadenhütten. Ash Hollow. Red River. Sand Creek. Achulet. (Don’t know them? Look them up. Be horrified.)

Nowhere in Dan’s letter does he address other points about the name: that dictionaries define the word as offensive; that the team, held up as some sort of racially inclusive organization ‘honoring’ its ‘native’ coach, was the last to desegregate – and only because the federal government forced the issue; that over the last 35 years, more than 2,000 high schools have changed their similarly racial nicknames to something else; that studies have shown that negative racial stereotypes are known to play a role in exacerbating inequity and inadequacy among Native youth; and that many Native leaders have indeed spoken out against the name. Among other things.

Dan closes with this final thought: “I respect the opinions of those who disagree. I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn.”

Good. Then I urge you, Dan, to take up the Oneida Indian Nation on its open invitation to visit the tribe’s homeland and talk with its leaders and people.

I personally dare Dan to walk in and greet the nation using the name as he contends it to mean.

I’m fairly certain he’d learn firsthand what that word really means to Natives.