The name “Redskins” was given to a National Football League team in Boston, via an extraordinary series of events, in 1933. It should be retired, following another series of extraordinary events, in 2014.
As the Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont recounted, the team now known as the Washington Redskins was in Boston from 1932 to 1936. It originally shared the Boston Braves name with the National League baseball team, and played at Braves Field. In 1933, however, it moved to Fenway Park. A new name was in order. “Redskins” would continue the Native American theme of the previous name and, by some accounts, promote the team’s coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, who was believed to be Native American. The owner who made the change, George Preston Marshall, was an avowed racist, opposing desegregation, but that doesn’t seem to have figured into the name change: He apparently saw “Redskins” as a positive term.
Its history, however, is far from unambiguously positive. Unlike “Braves” or “Chiefs” or “Indians,” the term “Redskins” refers to skin color. It was widely understood to be derogatory — a way of classifying people by race. It wasn’t always meant as a slur, however, and some Native Americans ended up embracing the term. Even today, some high schools on Indian reservations use the name “Redskins,” and, in the National Annenberg Election Survey of 2004, 90 percent of self-identified Native Americans said they were not offended by the Washington Redskins. (Critics say a more exacting survey, focused on tribe members, would have shown greater disapproval.)
Nonetheless, the players and coaches who have worn Redskins colors intended no slurs. Neither did the millions of fans who wore Redskins shirts and sang the iconic theme song, “Hail to the Redskins.”
But the name always nagged at some people, especially as the United States became more willing to confront its history of mistreatment of Native Americans. Over the past year, activists have raised the volume on calls for the team to change its name, gaining the support of many large tribes, inter-tribal organizations, and key members of Congress. President Obama also urged a change. In Washington, with its large African-American population, the use of a racial designation has particular resonance.
A name change would be difficult for some fans to accept, coming via politicians and activists, rather than followers of the team. But the sense of grievance is genuine enough. The exploitation, prejudice, stereotyping, and betrayal of Native Americans by the US government and many other Americans is encoded in the term Redskins, however much it has grown to mean something different on the football field.
A name change wouldn’t be unprecedented, as Washington’s own basketball team morphed from the Bullets to the Wizards in 1997 amid concerns about the city’s soaring murder rate. That was a widely applauded act of civic sensitivity. The same can, and should, happen with the Redskins. Team owner Daniel Snyder, unpopular with many fans, has sought to score points with some Redskins diehards by vowing to never, ever change the name. But Snyder would gain more by showing respect to those who are offended by the name, and opening a new chapter in Washington football history.
The original Braves name is still available for football, but a cleaner break is in order. A new name would be seen as a symbol of magnanimity and recognition of historic wrongs, not capitulation.