This is part of a two-post series on Bob Costas’ commentary on the Redskins naming debate.
It’s been an eventful year in the decades-old controversy surrounding the National Football League’s Washington Redskins franchise and its allegedly offensive team name. In 2012, the Kansas City Star publicly reiterated its policy of not printing the “Redskins” name in its articles and a bevy of other publications, including the Washington City Paper, San Francisco Chronicle, and Richmond Free Press soon followed suit. In March, U.S. House Representatives introduced a bill to void any trademark registrations disparaging Native American peoples and, in May, ten members of Congress sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Redskins team owner Dan Snyder, and FedEx, the team’s primary sponsor, requesting that the team’s name be immediately changed (1). Snyder responded with a series of statements swearing the name would never change under his watch and polls conducted in May suggested that 4 in 5 Americans agreed that a change in name should not take place (2;3). Meanwhile, the Oneida Indian Nation expanded its “Change the Mascot” campaign through demonstration and advertisement across the nation and, in October, President Obama was called upon to comment in an Associated Press interview, stating that if he were the owner of a franchise with a name that was “offending a sizable group of people,” he would “think about changing” it (4). On October 9, Snyder published an open letter to fans in The Washington Post, again defending the team’s name as not offensive to Native Americans but, rather, a tribute to those people and the franchise’s own proud heritage (5).
These arguments are, by now, familiar ones across the United States. Protests against and arguments defending the use of Native American names, terms, and images as sporting mascots gained momentum in the 1970s and 80s and have since led to name changes at the high school, college, and professional level, while also inspiring, in some places (including Wisconsin, for instance) recent legal efforts to protect Indian mascots in spite of community or Native American complaint (6). Critics of team names like “Redskins,” “Indians,” and “Braves” assert that these terms rob indigenous peoples—already mistreated grossly by American history and heirs to a weighted, unequal social position—of their own cultural words and symbols, their own ability to define themselves, while reducing sometimes sacred elements of their culture to frivolous, commercialized, and insulting caricatures in the dominant culture’s control. Defenders of the team names and mascots often contend that the names are not meant to offend but rather to honor Native peoples, that many polled Native Americans are not offended, that the sporting symbols ultimately preserve Indian heritage for Indians and non-Indians alike, and that, in the modern day, such symbols are as much a source of traditional pride for decades-old sports teams as they are for Native Americans themselves.
While names have been changed and logos have been altered, these two camps in the debate have done little to achieve consensus. In many cases—including that of the Washington Redskins—the groups have reached a kind of stalemate, both staking their claims to the names and traditions as a matter of personal passion, heritage, and identity, as Snyder does in his letter when he reiterates, “Our past isn’t just where we came from—it’s who we are” (7). These kinds of appeals are difficult if not impossible to refute, as both sides are entitled to claim their own tradition and heritage for themselves. Both proponents and opponents of the names rally around claims to pride and tradition with self-determined certainty. When team names are changed, resentments still linger. When team names remain, often the best outcome is a vocal vow to respect each other’s opinions but agree to disagree.
For this reason, sportscaster Bob Costas’ October 13 comments on the controversy are particularly interesting. Costas, speaking during halftime of a game between Washington and Dallas (a potent ground for commentary, with the implicit Cowboys vs. Indians overtones) during NBC’s highly-rated Sunday Night Football broadcast, took two minutes and twenty seconds to address the controversy before a national audience not by taking up the old, tradition- and identity-based arguments championed time and again in the Indian mascot debate but by seeking compromise and distinguishing between some team names as harmless and others, like Redskins, as offensive. His novel approach invites a close analysis.
See Part II for continuation . . .