We Americans see our professional sports as extensions of our best values and aspirations. We root for the underdog and celebrate the spectacular because they exemplify our patriotic notion that anyone can achieve greatness through hard work and determination. But what happens when professional sports personify the worst in American culture? How do we respond when the teams we love embody the racism that is older than our country? The answer is, we keep sending mixed signals about our tolerance of racism.
We rebuke contemporary expressions of racism in one sport, while failing to denounce the bigotry of a racist mascot in another. Although one might not think tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) could be the catalyst for moving the bigotry threshold in American professional sports, Native students do have the potential to eliminate racist mascots once and for all.
When TMZ.com released the recording of Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling making racist comments to his assistant V. Stiviano in April, the National Basketball Association (NBA) responded quickly and decisively. After thoroughly investigating the matter, NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for life, fined him the maximum of $2.5 million, and encouraged the other team owners to exercise their right to force Sterling to sell his team.
In an interview with Time magazine, when Seattle Seahawks star Richard Sherman was asked whether he thought Sterling would’ve been banned for life if he were an owner in the National Football League (NFL), he responded, “No I don’t. Because we have an NFL team called the Redskins. I don’t think the NFL really is as concerned as they show…I think the discussion has stopped. And the public has just accepted it.” Sherman’s words echo the fact that 79% of Americans surveyed last year believe the Redskins should keep their name.
Still, the pressure on Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder to change his team’s name is mounting, but that doesn’t mean Snyder is ready to heed the calls for change. In April, Snyder said that to American Indians, “We’re not an issue. The real issues are real-life issues, real-life needs, and it’s time for people to focus on reality.” The National Congress of American Indians responded, “Dan Snyder lives in a world where he can get his way throwing his money around. The reality is that he is stubbornly defending the use of a slur.” Perhaps most poignantly, golf professional Notah Begay III (Diné/Pueblo) stated, “The Washington football team’s front office has tried to make the issue about them and it’s really not about them. It’s about, unfortunately, the NFL and its owners and its corporate partners condoning use of that word.”
Elsewhere in our nation’s capital, the D.C. delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, responded to Snyder’s dismissal by stating, “I’m not asserting that Snyder’s comments are the exact equivalent, but they have, on our Native people, the same effect as Sterling’s on African Americans.The only difference is that Native Americans have to see that name everywhere, all the time, where [Sterling’s] was a one-time exposure to a man who apparently holds deep racial views.” Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, 50 U.S. senators signed a letter urging the NFL to force the Redskins to change their name. Their letter said in part, “Today, we urge you and the National Football League to send the same clear message the NBA did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports…It’s time for the NFL to endorse a name change.”
Although the heat placed on Snyder and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is promising, the legal truth is that in this instance, 18-year-old American Indians are more powerful than Washington lawmakers. In 1992, seven prominent American Indian leaders filed a petition to cancel the Washington Redskins trademarks arguing that they violated the Lanham Act of 1946, which prohibits the registering of any name which “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter.” The case was titled Harjo et al. v Pro-football, Inc., and in 1999 the US Patent and Trademark Office canceled seven registered trademarks for being “disparaging.” The decision did not take effect because of an appeal filed by the team, and in 2003 a U.S. District judge overturned the earlier ruling because the judges relied on “flawed or incomplete data.” In 2005, the NFL franchise argued that the plaintiffs had no standing to complain because they “waited too long” to file after the 1967 trademarks were granted. In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court denied the review of the lower court’s ruling because they agreed that the plaintiffs should have filed sooner.
Every year I hear speeches about the necessity of eliminating American Indian mascots, in both my classroom and at the AIHEC student conference where all TCUs meet. I’m convinced that TCU students’ collective voices are our best hope for change. Litigation is certainly an option, but rallying behind a petition or making a vocal stand may be just as effective. While the battle against this powerful corporate entity will never be easy, our students can take solace in remembering that a group of righteous men and women conquering an oppressive empire is an American tradition too. Snyder says his team’s mascot is not an issue for American Indian people. Now is the time for TCU students to tell him otherwise.
Brady, E. (2014a). 50 senators sign letter urging Redskins to change team name. usatoday.com. Retrieved May 2014, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/redskins/2014/05/22/washington-redskins-senate-nickname-american-indians-daniel-snyder/9439613/
Brady, E. (2014b). Notah Begay: Snyder’s Redskins foundation a ‘gimmick’. usatoday.com. Retrieved May 2014, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/redskins/2014/04/22/daniel-snyder-team-name-controversy-foundation-notah-begay/8014797/
Davis, A. (2014). Members of Congress link NBA’s Sterling controversy to NFL’s debate over Redskins. washingtonpost.com. Retrieved May 2014, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/members-of-congress-link-nbas-sterling-controversy-to-nfls-redskins-debate/2014/04/30/fda779b4-d08f-11e3-937f-d3026234b51c_story.html
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Gregory, S. (2014). Richard Sherman: The NFL would not have banned a Donald Sterling for life. TIME.com. Retrieved May 2014, from http://time.com/91291/richard-sherman-the-nfl-would-not-have-banned-a-donald-sterling-for-life/
Hirschfelder, A., & Molin, P. F. (Eds.). (2012). The extraordinary book of Native American lists.Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Lingebach, C. (2014). Members of Congress compare Donald Sterling comments to Redskins name. washington.cbslocal.com. Retrieved May 2014, from http://washington.cbslocal.com/2014/04/30/multiple-members-of-congress-compare-donald-sterling-comments-to-redskins-name/
Nucklos, B. (2013). AP-GfK poll: 4 in 5 Americans say don’t change Redskins nickname; 11 percent say change it. http://ap-gfkpoll.com. Retrieved May 2014, from http://ap-gfkpoll.com/featured/our-latest-story-2
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation, where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.