Washington Redskins helmets displaying the emblematic colors and team mascot. Recent debate over the racist connotations of the team name have lead to several sports reporters weighing in. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
“Otto: Apes don’t read philosophy.
Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it” —A Fish Called Wanda
Living in the Washington, D.C., area. I have many friends who defend the name of our local football team, the Redskins. Even though I disagree with them vehemently, I actually feel bad that their chief advocate in the sports world is now ESPN’s Rick Reilly. Once a brilliant boy-wonder columnist for Sports Illustrated, Reilly has, to be kind, not aged well. He has become the sports writing equivalent of the safety information packet on an airplane: the thing you do not read. But alas, after much prompting, I have much to my regret read his latest. Reilly has written a column in defense of the Redskins name that is so myopic, so insulting and, frankly, so stupid, it makes the piece on Fox Sports comparing Johnny Manziel to Rosa Parks look like the work of Frank Deford. By all means check it out and make up your own mind, or take comfort that I read it so you wouldn’t have to. No one would blame you.
Let’s start with the first sentence. Reilly writes, “I guess this is where I’m supposed to fall in line and do what every other American sports writer is doing. I’m supposed to swear I won’t ever write the words ‘Washington Redskins’ anymore because it’s racist and offensive and a slap in the face to all Native Americans who ever lived.”
“Every other sportswriter”? Try three. Three mainstream media sportswriters have taken this step. They are Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, USA Today’s Christine Brennan and, in a serious but satirical way, ESPN’s Bill Simmons. Later in the column, Reilly will trash King and Brennan by name, but lacks the sand to call out Simmons. If nothing else, he knows where his maize is buttered.
Reilly then talks about his family, writing, “I just don’t quite know how to tell my father-in-law, a Blackfeet Indian [that the name is racist]. He owns a steak restaurant on the reservation near Browning, Mont. He has a hard time seeing the slap-in-the-face part.”
Some of his best friends—and family—are Native American. Your father-in-law who owns a steakhouse on the res loves the name? Good for him. The Oneida Nation wants it changed. So we can stand with the Oneida Nation, or Reilly’s father-in-law. That’s a tough one.
Later, in an aside, Reilly quotes his father-in-law voicing strong opposition to the Kansas City Chiefs’ name, but Reilly doesn’t dwell on this because it interrupts his central thesis. And oh my, what a thesis it is.
“White America has spoken,” he pens with what I’m sure he imagines is sardonic relish. “You [Native Americans] aren’t offended, so we’ll be offended for you.”
You read correctly. In Reilly’s world, Redskins is loved—as he underlines repeatedly—by Native Americans and hated by “white America”. Is this true? If “white America has spoken” it’s been loudly and proudly to keep the Redskins name. The mood, judging from my Twitter feed, is probably best described as “You will pry my Redskins foam finger and matching headdress from my cold, dead hands!”
Every poll shows overwhelming support for preserving the name as is. But saying “white America” is imposing this name change on the Native American community is not only ass-backward. It is incredibly insulting to every Native American—people like the original activists of the American Indian Movement, Suzan Harjo and Vern Bellecourt—who have organized to change it in the face of constant abuse by high-profile, invariably white sportswriters like Rick Reilly. By not giving even token mention to the long history of Native American organizing or agency, Reilly makes them invisible or implies that they are just pawns of this PC liberal elite just looking to be offended for the sake of being offended.
But the contention of people like Harjo and the Oneida Nation, unmentioned by Reilly, is not that mascots are “bad” in a vacuum. Their argument is that we have created a connective tissue between mascots and the dehumanization of their culture, which enables us to look the other way as Native Americans consistently have the lowest life expectancy, highest child mortality rate, and lowest standard of living of any ethnicity in the country. We can debate whether this connective tissue truly exists—I believe it does—but for Reilly to not even acknowledge the issue smacks of the worst kind of blinkered white privilege that people like Suzan Harjo have argued “mascoting” creates.
Reilly then goes on to write of all the Native American school districts that “wear the [Redskins] name with honor” (he names three). Reilly ignores, however, the students in Cooperstown, New York, who organized a successful grassroots campaign to throw the name Redskins in the garbage over the summer. He also ignores that the last forty years are actually a constant history of schools and teams disavowing Native American mascots. Did you know that St. Bonaventure, to use just one example, was once known as the Brown Indians and the Brown Squaws until they changed their names in 1992? Reilly doesn’t either.
But Rick Reilly is not done. He points out that Redskins existed for eighty-two years, so why change now? As mentioned, this is ignorant of the forty years Native Americans have agitated to change it. But forget that. Imagine someone saying to Claudette Colvin, “You people have been on the back of this bus for forty years. Why is this now an issue?” Or to the suffragettes, “Sweetie, you couldn’t cast a vote for a century. Now it’s a problem?” Actually we don’t have to imagine it. That’s exactly what people, the Rick Reillys of their day, have always said to oppressed groups to make them sit down and shut up. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an entire book, Why We Can’t Wait, to answer this. I’d suggest Reilly read some King, but I fear he’d say, “Peter King wrote a book?”
But oh, there’s more. So much more. Every tired argument —“PC!” “New Orleans Saints offends atheists!” “There are people who think Wizards promotes paganism!” “Forty-niners offends crusty old prospectors searchin’ for gold!” (sorry, that one was mine)—is exhumed. The problem with these arguments—hell, with this whole column—is that it ignores this pesky thing that happened called history. Reilly likes numbers so here are some more. The percentage of Native Americans in the United States is roughly 0.8 percent of the population. Before Europeans landed on these shores, it was—shocker—100 percent. Without massacres, displacement and depopulation, there would be no way a team could think of getting away with the name “Redskins.” And here’s a handy rule of thumb: if your team name exists only because there was a genocide, then you might need a new team name.
Reilly then ends his column with something so disgusting, so absent of any historical perspective, it renders everything before it a mere aperitif. Writing as if a member of this white PC media horde trying to change the name, he exclaims, “Trust us. We know what’s best. We’ll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again. Kind of like a reservation.”
Like a poop in the pool, I think I’m just going to let that sit there and speak for itself.
I almost feel sorry for team owner Dan Snyder that Rick Reilly is now his loudest media advocate. Almost. When you defend the indefensible, you get the bedfellows you deserve, and more often than not, you hate yourself in the morning. A simple test for Rick Reilly: answer the challenge of Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Nation. Go to his house, look at his grandchildren and say, “My goodness these are some cute little Redskins.” If it is really a name of honor, you will make the trip and say it to the Halbritters. If you won’t, then you are completely full of it. News flash: he won’t.
Dave Zirin talks about indigenous voices in the Redskins name change debate.