In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in American sport when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first African American to play in the formerly all-white baseball league.
Seven decades later, even though the racial tensions are nowhere near what they were when Robinson made history, one of the United States’ most storied sporting franchises still clings to a term many critics argue supports racial intolerance.
The NFL’s Washington Redskins have carried their name since 1933, when they were the Boston Redskins. When the football team moved to the capital four years later, they brought the name with them and have held it ever since.
“Redskin” is a slang term used to describe Native Americans, and is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a term “usually offensive” except when in reference to Washington’s NFL franchise.
Recently, the Redskins owner, Daniel Snyder sent a letter to the team’s season ticket-holders and the “Washington Redskins Nation” defending the decision to continue using the name.
Throughout Snyder’s letter, the owner references a number of studies that show Native Americans don’t find the team’s name offensive, and that the general public doesn’t think it should be changed. Snyder’s letter points to the team’s origins with Native Americans and its respect for their traditions.
But the fight over Native American mascots doesn’t stop there. Teams in Major League Baseball, and primarily collegiate athletics programs, have also received backlash for their nicknames.
Two MLB clubs, the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, changed their logos to become less offensive to Native Americans. The Braves replaced their mascot “Chief Noc-A-Homa” - though they still use the “Screaming Indian” on some of their uniforms and apparel. This year, the Indians replaced their logo of “Chief Wahoo” on team caps and batting helmets, but it still appears on uniform sleeves.
In 2005, the NCAA cited 31 colleges for having mascots that use potentially offensive imagery. Since then, all universities previously using the nickname Indians have been forced to change their mascot. Other nicknames like Savages, Braves, Redmen and anything referring to a specific tribe, like Seminoles or Sioux, are also included in the citation.
Some schools chose to make a complete change and go a different direction. For instance, Arkansas State changed from the Indians to the Red Wolves. Other major universities like the University of Illinois’ mascot, the Illini, has only had its image changed, since the mascot refers to the state as a whole.
Overall, 15 teams have changed their mascot to be more sensitive to Native Americans, but there are four teams who fall into this category, but haven’t changed anything. The Florida State Seminoles, Central Michigan Chippewas, Utah Utes and Mississippi College Choctaws have all been granted waivers to keep their nicknames after the respective tribes gave their support to the schools.
So if teams with nicknames that aren’t deemed racist have made the change, how has Washington been able to maintain its much more controversial title and mascot?
While legal action has been taken to force the team to change its nickname, the responsibility lies with the team’s owner. Snyder claims the franchise’s continued use of the name is a matter of tradition and pride, while continually ignoring the fact that it can be taken as a racist term.
Regardless of what polls and the general public say, refusing to admit that the team’s name is a problem negates what Jackie Robinson did so many years ago to take racism out of sports as a whole.