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Aaron Leibowitz | The Fan

What’s in a name

Published: Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 08:12

What would you do if you grew up rooting for a team called the Redskins?

That’s the question I found myself pondering this past weekend as I walked around Washington, D.C. and saw men, women, seniors and newborns alike donning their favorite football team’s logo: a stereotypical image of a Native American with, quite literally, red skin and a feather in his hair.

As fans, to what exactly are we loyal?

Is it the players? The average NFL career lasts just 3.5 seasons. With free agency, rosters change constantly.

Is it the city? I know a New Yorker who roots for the Miami Heat, a San Franciscan who roots for the Green Bay Packers and a New Jerseyan who roots for Everton Football Club.

Ultimately, what fans of a given team share is a name and a logo. What Redskins fans share is a derogatory racial term and a stereotypical image of a Native American with red skin and a feather in his hair.

Of course, it’s easy enough for fans to separate the images they rally around from their racial implications, whether they support the Washington Redskins or the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves or the Cleveland Indians, the Florida State Seminoles or the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux. “It’s about tradition,” they’ll say. “It’s not meant to offend Native Americans.” “It’s just sports, just a silly mascot. Lighten up.”

Devoting yourself to a sports team is silly. Making mascots of Native Americans — people who were nearly exterminated so the white man could control this land — is sickening.

Mascots are meant to be intimidating and animalistic. They are Lions, Tigers, Bears, and sometimes Jumbos. They are usually not human.

What Native Americans have in common with the animals that represent most teams is that they are not treated as humans. And, because of other humans, they’re nearly extinct.

Over time, there has been some pushback against indigenous mascots, but changes have mostly been made at the collegiate level, where schools want to avoid sanctions from the NCAA and protests from activist students. The Stanford Indians became the Stanford Cardinal. The St. John’s Redmen became the Red Storm. The Dartmouth Indians became the Big Green.

But in professional sports, money and power have allowed the Redskins and many others to stay the way they are. Fans continue to attend games and buy jerseys, and teams continue to stave off complaints from indigenous groups, claiming there is no harm intended.

Native Americans have tried to do the work themselves. In 2005, after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decided to cancel the registration of the Redskins, the case Pro−Football, Inc. v. Harjo reached the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. But it was sent back to trial court because of a procedural issue, allowing the Redskins to keep their name. In 2009, the Supreme Court refused to reconsider the case, saying the Native Americans had waited too long and thus forfeited their right to sue.

Until the fans themselves start caring who is harmed by their fandom and speak out, both with their voices and their pocketbooks, nothing is going to change.

The Redskins insist their name is meant to honor Native American tradition — apparently, they see the use of a disparaging term and a degrading image as a form of respect. But does the intent really matter? If I hug you to show affection and squeeze so hard that you can’t breathe, should I keep on squeezing?

As fans, we’re privileged to be able to watch our teams on TV and in person, and to wear our RG3 jerseys with pride. But with that privilege comes a responsibility to think about what we’re cheering for.

While we’re having fun, who’s being silenced? Who are we hurting?

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Aaron Leibowitz is a junior who is majoring in American studies. He can be reached at Aaron.Leibowitz@tufts.edu.

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