You know it’s Columbus Day when people post open criticism for a day glorifying a European explorer that incited genocide. In 1989, South Dakota legislators even passed legislation changing the name of Columbus Day to Native American Day. Around the holiday, conversation about European expansion and colonialism in the Americas even spreads to professional football and baseball.
Coincidentally — or possibly purposefully — the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys faced off this weekend. To racially conscious people, this game emphasized the negative context of the Columbus Day. Activists against the “Redskins” name argue that it represents the expansion of white European racial dominance. The team owners say it is a mark of American heritage and the history of the country’s origins.
A letter signed by 10 members of Congress addressed to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called for him to speak up and share his opinion on the Washington Redskins controversy. He originally defended the team name in June, saying it represented a positive view of Native Americans, but understood why people may misunderstand the context of the logo. In a statement Sunday, however, he spoke more about people offended by the timing of the Redskins and Cowboys game.
“We also have to be sensitive enough to at least listen and see what it is we can do if we’re insulting any element of our fan base and or not our fan base for that matter,” Goodell said. “We need to see what we can do. We need to listen, we need to engage, and try to understand what it is.”
The political, social and racial discourse is certainly indicative of this heightened sense of cultural sensitivity. Americans now revisit whether our current culture remains open to understanding modern cultural oppression. U.S. President Barack Obama even commented on the controversy on Oct. 5 and asked NFL officials to explore a name change.
While the name “Redskins” doesn’t have the same sort of extreme negative connotations as other slurs do, it reduces a team identity to a race or a cultural identity in which it does not relate. If activist groups and Native Americans are loud enough to spark conversation about the racism linked to the team name, however, the Washington Redskins should follow schools such as Cornell University and entertain real conversation to instigate a name-change.
While it is potentially problematic, the Washington Redskins are nowhere nearly as offensive at the mascot for the Cleveland Indians. Where Native Americans is still the preferred “label,” Cleveland fans celebrate a culture with a top-heavy mascot with bright red skin, a feather headpiece and blatant disrespect for Native Americans. Since 1928, “Chief Wahoo” has insulted Native Americans while running around the field like a child.
Representations of cultures should never aim to make a complete satire out of serious traditions. Team names should also tread lightly and change throughout the years. Even if people believe the Washington Redskins is not racially insensitive, if the offended party speaks out, people have to listen.