Offense and Defense: Bob Costas Weighs in on the Washington Redskins Name Controversy (Part I)

Bob Costas weighs in on the Redskins naming controversy. Image originally from NBC.

Bob Costas weighs in on the Redskins naming controversy. Image originally from NBC.

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 . . .


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3 Responses to Offense and Defense: Bob Costas Weighs in on the Washington Redskins Name Controversy (Part I)

  1. Grant Suhs

    Casey: looking forward to Part II. This may fall outside of the scope of these posts, but I would be interested to hear what you think about the kairos of this debate (e.g. why this? why now?). As you observe, Native American-themed team names and logos may strip Native American cultures 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.” At the same time, many Native Americans face horrifying material inequalities including, in the words of former Senator Brian Dorgan, “unemployment, endemic poverty, historical trauma and a lack of housing, educational opportunity and health care,” as well as markedly prevalent crimes against women such as murder (ten times the national average) and sexual assault and rape (two and a half times the national average), which receive sporadic, passing acknowledgement from politicians, mainstream medias, and the public, at best. Why has popular debate erupted over the symbolic treatment of Native Americans by the Redskins , instead of the fundamental human rights issues cited above? While it may unfairly oppose the symbolic and material issues here, I’m tempted to see the fracas as the latest example of a recurring, safer, proxy controversy over depictions of Native Americans that relieves us from directly confronting the actual mistreatment of Native Americans. Thoughts?

    • Casey R. Schmitt

      Grant –

      Hey, thanks for the kind feedback. I’ve been asking myself the same “why this/why now?” question over the past months and I’ve discussed it with several people. I like your suggestion that discussing the symbolic Indian rather than the actual Indian serves as a kind of proxy debate. Getting hung up on cartoons and sports mascots rather than tackling the very real and grosser social inequalities both allows for debate about a touchy topic in a sphere that often avoids addressing truly disturbing social circumstances head-on AND limits that debate by focusing attention on comparably “light” discrepancies, effectively silencing and erasing attention to other Indian concerns from the public eye. Promoting this “proxy” debate over mascots both promotes attention to American Indian welfare and stifles it, by limiting it to surface-level disputes and life off of the Rez.

      At the same time, I do think the mascot controversy is a valid controversy in its own right, and not merely or intentionally crafted as a proxy. Many folks I’ve talked to suggest the Redskins controversy has only flared up again this year because the Redskins were, in early 2013, again a viable, newsworthy contender in the NFC. For the better part of the last 20 years, the NFC East division has been dominated by the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Eagles, making the Redskins only rarely a topic of national conversation. In 2013, after winning the division with their hot and media-friendly new quarterback, “RG3,” the Redskins name and logo were once again the center of national attention. When placed in a prominent position, the controversial image and nickname prompt reflection and protest.

      Is it a bit disappointing that it takes media popularity and sports success to promote social issues that are otherwise ignored? Well, yes. I doubt very much that we’d be talking about Indian mascots again at the national level if the Redskins hadn’t garnered attention first by simply winning games and entertaining viewers. But this current popularity can be used to launch debate anew, and that’s what I think Costas is doing in this speech. He is capitalizing on a moment in sports entertainment to refresh and revitalize a discussion that has stagnated over the years. One can look at Jackie Robinson or Magic Johnson or, perhaps, the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia to see prime examples of how success and interest in sports can spur and make sure long-necessary yet often-avoided social discussions finally take place, even before audiences that were not seeking to have such debates or make such reflections. I expand on the utility of Costas’ remarks in Part II of this blog post.

      Also, I think the Indian mascot controversy is actually a very useful grounds for discussing American Indian rights in places like D.C. and the Eastern seaboard. The fact is, for many, the Redskins and other Indian mascot logos are the most commonly encountered presence of Indians in modern American life. Talking about the representations, in some places, is for good or ill the most accessible way to talk about Indians themselves (with, of course, inherent complications). The Indian mascot debate and debate over other aspects of Indian rights and Indian life are very different in places with a more visible and sizable Indian population. Costas is speaking nationwide, but the Indian mascot debate plays out in very different, particular, and interesting ways in the Lake Superior basin, the Dakotas, the Mountain states, and the Southwest. If you want to read up on those regional variations, I’d be happy to point you to some sources. Excellent work is being done.


  2. Pingback: Offense and Defense: Bob Costas Weighs in on the Washington Redskins Name Controversy (Part II) | Rhetorically Speaking

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