This NFL season has blazed new political trails as players have used their platform to stand up to racism in the face of a ferocious backlash. It has truly been a season of firsts. But there is another “first” on the immediate horizon that speaks to the league’s baldly reactionary history in regards to race.
The NFL—for all their corporate rhetoric about being something that “brings the country together”—of course has a team named after a Native American racial slur in the nation’s capital. That’s not news. What is news is that on Thanksgiving, for the first time in league history, this team in Washington will be playing host. That means as we finish our food, slip into sweatpants, and to gather around the television to watch NFL football, a tradition only slightly less ubiquitous than pumpkin pie, the R*dskins slur— a name that exists only because of genocide and displacement—will have center stage.
Not unlike Houston Texans owner Bob McNair saying that “the inmates are running the prison” as NFL players were speaking about criminal-justice reform, this raises irony to the level of obscenity, especially as owners, and their pizza-purveying sponsors, are trying to convince players and the public that they are enlightened about these issues. It’s as if NFL owners, by having Washington host this game, are having their own private joke at the expense of the players, fans, and commentators who care about these issues. All the team would say to us at The Nation was, “The [R*dskins] are excited to host the first ever Thanksgiving game in Washington. We appreciate our fans spending their holiday with us, and we want to create new traditions and special experiences that [R*dskins] fans and families are sure to remember.”
To get an actual comment, I reached out to Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and spokesman for the Change the Mascot Campaign. He said, “Thanksgiving has long been a difficult day for many Native Americans, because the holiday story promoted in popular culture often omits the oppression, violence, and bloodshed that our people faced when Europeans migrated to this continent. Using the holiday to additionally promote the Washington team’s derogatory name further marginalizes Native Americans—and tells people across the country that on this holiday it is perfectly acceptable to promote a painful racial slur. At a time when our political debate is so polarized and filled with invective, we should be able to agree that the NFL should not promoting a racial slur.”