June 21, 2018

Thanksgiving Pardons and the Washington “Americans”

November 27, 2013 by · 4 Comments 

In 1937 the  Boston Redskins professional football team moved to Washington and began to play their games at old Griffith Stadium, where baseball was still king. The Redskins, as they are unfortunately still known, were owned by George Preston Marshall who earned opprobrium in many circles for refusing to integrate his football team and using ugly language that invoked the worst within our society and culture in so doing.  So it is noteworthy that Marshall’s team should still be haunted by the ghost of racism because he chose so poorly in reaching for a moniker for his football eleven.

When the team was still playing in Boston, the team not called the Red Sox was known as the Braves and Marshall’s team had played their games at the Boston Braves park for a while.  So it can be assumed that he took the name “Redskins” in the same vein, playing on the popularity of an exiting team.  And yet the name Braves has not drawn the same attention from Native Americans as “Redskin,”  though the controversy certainly extends beyond the “Redskins,”  and many sports teams refuse to compromise tradition for the sake of a small minority of Americans.

The point about the current name for the Washington NFL team is its egregious character.  It should be no surprise that Preston Marshall chose a particularly offensive name.  Just how fraught with ugly memories the term Redskin has, was driven home by Kevin Gover, Executive Director of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Gover is not only director of the museum, but also a member of the Pawnee Tribe, who once occupied the Nebraska plains and were the largest native population on the North American continent. He has considerable authority on this subject and his voice deserves to be heard above many.

On a recently televised broadcast in Washington, Gover told the story of a Pawnee Indian who was employed by a Wild West Show touring in Europe. During the tour, the man of Native American heritage took ill and died.  Rather than convey his remains back to the United States where he could be accorded a suitable burial, he was skinned and stuffed for display in the country where he died. Such were the times, but just how far have we come really?

Gover used the story to convey how repugnant the term “Redskin” is within his ethnic community and why Preston Marshall’s team name draws such criticism to this day.

This is a baseball web site and I ask forbearance from purists, because this issue has played out across all sports and needs to be addressed using this case study to point to the larger meaning that sport in general should take from it.  Proper respect for all ethnic groups should not be beyond the reach of sports teams regardless the game being played. Gover’s story should make anyone cringe without regard to whether one is a football, baseball or lacrosse fan.

Rather than just carp, I would propose a simple solution.  The baseball teams of the nascent American League were often referred to by sportswriters as “Americans,” as in the Boston Americans or the Chicago Americans.  It denoted that the team played in the newly formed American League.  It would be a wonderful change of direction for the Washington NFL team to call themselves the “Americans.”  It finesses the current name in that it is inclusive of Native Americans in the best sense of the word.  It has a sports history and it also evokes the singular nature of the City of Washington as the capital of the United States of America.  Washington is a uniquely American city and if anyone deserves to call their team the “Americans,” it is one from this city.

So change the name Dan Snyder.  Celebrate this Thanksgiving season and its aura of the old world welcoming the new one by doing something right for once.  There are Thanksgiving pardons and maybe you will earn one in the doing. Maybe you will start a movement to change the many team names that are oft times considered offensive and the trend could bear your name.  Call your team something with a little class. Do it because it is the right thing to do, but who knows, maybe the team will reflect the new direction on the field as well.


4 Responses to “Thanksgiving Pardons and the Washington “Americans””
  1. Bruce DePuyt says:

    Readers interested in the conversation you reference can watch it at http://www.News8NewsTalk.com.

  2. Rusty Priske says:

    Yes, yes, YES!

    Then we can start work on Cleveland…

  3. Gary Pflag says:

    It is all the rage these days to impute undistilled racism to the long-ago attachment of American Indian nicknames to various teams, but – as any historically-literate Boston sports fans knows – the Boston Braves and Braves Field were named after the “Braves” of Tammany Hall (that enlightened political machine whose party affiliation escapes me) of which team owner James Gaffney was an operative. To Gaffney’s thinking the name had the additional virtue of poking a finger in the eye of the Brahmins, who were no more likely to be members of Gaffney’s party than they were likely to be spotted at Braves Field! In due course, when the Redskins began operations in Braves Field, they adopted the name “Braves”, aping the local nine (a common practice at that time, where do you think the NY Giants got their name? Also see Yankees, Dodgers, Pirates, etc.) but later moved over to Fenway Park where it was deemed inappropriate to retain the name of the Red Sox crosstown rival. The desire for some continuity was solved by switching to “Redskins”. (Another parallel – the Chicago Bears took their name from their Wrigley Field landlord’s ballteam) Boston and New England were not exactly hotbeds of either latent or overt racism toward American Indians at that time in history… One can wonder: had a Boston owner named a team the “Paddys” or “Micks” back in the days of “No Irish Need Apply”, and the name had endured unto this day, whether the bien-pensants would be agitating for a change…

  4. Thanks for the historical overview. I think it is telling that when you say, “switching to Redskins” you can see only the need for continuity. Granted, it is a valid concern and probably the one that motivated ownership at the time. But for all of your historical recitation, there is not one word that acknowledges the inhumanity of the term “Redskins,” as astutely explained by the Native American who now directs the Museum of Native Americans in Washington. I find outrage over political correctness a bit tiresome. There have been gross injustices committed in this country: slavery and the annihilation of the native peoples of the North American continent are probably the worst and the two that transcend comparisons of any kind. I continue to believe that sport is ill-served by terms that call to mind those historical stains on our national honor. Papering over them with history doesn’t work either.

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