Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Skin in the NFL's Branding Game

So, is it racist, or not?

The Oneida tribe of Native Americans in upstate New York has won a hearing with the National Football League to discuss their belief that the term "redskins" is a racist epithet.  Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, has been quoted as declaring he'd "NEVER" - and yes, it's in all caps - change his team's name, but Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation wants to change his mind.

It's a battle that has gone on for years, pitting the remnant of North America's once mighty native tribes against this country's new powerhouse of NFL football.  Actually, Native Americans have fought against a host of team names, mascots, slogans, and logos in a variety of sports - not just football - that they say denigrates their heritage.  And for this group of people particularly desperate for legitimacy, the Washington Redskins represent victory's mother lode.  The Redskins are the NFL's third most valuable team, a legendary rival of the even more popular Dallas Cowboys, and the home team of our nation's capital city.  In every way, they're a high-profile target, and if Native Americans win against the Washington Redskins, it could staunch other contentious references to their heritage in our pop culture.

At least, that's how they see it.

This battle started in 1932 when, up in Boston, the Redskins football club was launched as the Boston Braves, sharing its name with the Boston Braves baseball team, both of which played at Braves Field.  In 1933, their name changed to the Redskins, and the club moved to our nation's capital in 1937.

In a way, the Washington Redskins have always had an affiliation with Native Americans in their name.  Ostensibly, today, the name "Braves" could refer to anybody who is heroic, but historically, the term has been used in conjunction with Native American "warriors," another term that has come under fire for being racist in nature.  Indeed, couldn't it be argued that some of this terminology simply reflects historical artifacts involving Native Americans with which our nation's legacy is - for better or worse - paved?

At least two national polls have found that the vast majority of both non-Native-American Americans and Native Americans find nothing objectionable about the term "redskins."  In our day and age, with a combination of both common courtesy and political correctness, to call a Native American a "redskin" isn't just vulgar, it's simply not part of our lexicon.  It's a word whose racist connotations have been left in another time and place.  Nowadays, thanks to the dominance and popularity of sports in our society, most people more readily identify the term "redskin" as a prestigious brand within football.  Some even say having an NFL team named after you - even with what could be considered a derogatory name - might indicate a recognition of a people group's role in history, kind of like the Minnesota Vikings.  Then too, having the words "redskin" and "pigskin" (ancient forerunners of today's football were made of a pig's bladder) share a close grammatical affiliation could be said to minimize pejorative connotations to Native Americans.

Still, America's history with Native Americans hasn't been exactly stellar.  And back in the 1960's, the Washington Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate and hire black players, thanks to the overt racism of its then-owner, George Preston Marshall.  Perhaps the combination of these two bitter legacies helps make Native Americans see their battle against the Redskins as a prime opportunity to make a definitive statement about their own place in our society at the expense of an organization with a history of not learning moral lessons quickly.

However, the role Native Americans play in our society has also been changing, and for the Oneidas, the term "redskins" has already been left on the cultural sidelines.  Operating mostly within the bucolic hills and quaint villages of central New York state, the Oneida Nation has spent the past couple of decades creating a sprawling empire for itself near the town most famous for silver forks and knives.  A golf fanatic, Halbritter himself made sure they carved no less than three championship golf courses out of the area's fertile farmland.  A towering four-star hotel, by far the tallest building in their rural county, serves the Turning Stone Casino, which enjoys a gaming monopoly across much of the state.  There are only 1,000 people left in the Oneida tribe, which is actually a vestige of the pre-colonial Iroquois Confederacy, but they employ over 5,000 people in jobs-starved central New York at their casino and other enterprises, ranging from convenience stores to marinas to cigarettes.

Turning Stone Casino and hotel near Oneida, New York
Yes, the Oneidas literally make their own cigarettes from tobacco shipped in from the Carolinas, and they sell them at a discount - plus charge no taxes, claiming their sovereignty as a federally-recognized nation.  In fact, thanks to their sovereignty, the Oneidas get to sell their gasoline at a discount, too, at their tribe-owned Sav-On convenience stores.  Other retailers in New York State have become frustrated with the Oneida Nation and its ability to wrangle concessions from state and federal leaders that unfairly tilt marketplace competition in favor of the tribe.

And it's not just non-tribal retailers whom the Oneidas have angered; owners of private land in central New York, plus municipal and county taxing authorities, have been frustrated for years by what they perceive to be land-grabbing by the Oneidas in retaliation for what the tribe claims were illegal land seizures of nearly 300,000 acres going back to colonial times.  So, while many non-tribal residents of New York state enjoy gambling, low-cost fuel, and no-tax cigarettes thanks to the Oneida Nation, others find the tribe's claims against the Washington Redskins a bit disingenuous.

After all, one of the brands of the Oneida's cigarettes is "Niagaras," after the Iroquois name for the famous river and its falls.

Still, "Niagaras" doesn't have any of the racist undertones "Redskins" can, and that's what this argument against the NFL team continues to be about.  It's not just a sentimental or branding issue the Oneida Nation has decided to capitalize upon as it flexes its own increasingly powerful political muscles.  Even if most Americans - and even most Native Americans - really don't care about it, does that indifference remove the racist legacy of the term "redskin?"

That depends.

To a certain degree, it could be argued that for any term to be racist - or, by extension, vulgar - the culture in which it is used needs to overwhelmingly identify it as such.

Take the term "bloody," for example, which in the United Kingdom is considered an obscenity when not used in the context of actual blood.  Here in the United States, however, there is no recognized indecency to the term, except perhaps when used in the increasingly popular exclamation, "bloody hell."  Might the term "redskins," which most people today more directly associate with the football team, be one whose context is no longer primarily racist in our culture?

It would help the cause of Native Americans if they could prove some sort of social, economic, or even moral harm is being inflicted upon them by the Washington Redskins not changing their name.  Most Native American tribes have not been as prosperous as the Oneidas, extraordinarily high rates of alcoholism and unemployment persist in many tribes across the country, and it's a flimsy economic model at best that's based on gambling and other vices like tobacco products.  Right now, the only protections successful tribes like the Oneidas have come from arm-twisting state leaders and federal agencies, using the disparities of the past as leverage, much like some blacks want to do as a justification for reparations.  That's no way to build bridges of trust, rapport, and community with generations of people today who had nothing to do with how poorly Native Americans were treated decades and centuries ago.

Yet, is the term "redskins" responsible for instigating or perpetuating any of this?

Of course, having the wealthy owner of a major NFL franchise draw his own line in the sand about changing the name of his team doesn't help this conversation.  But might Snyder's current intransigence bear some resemblance to the hubris being shown by the Oneidas and the way they're profitably manipulating sovereignty laws to the detriment of other for-profit entities?  If riding the letter of the law at the expense of moral considerations works for the Oneidas, how can they demand the Washington Redskins overlook everything in its brand's favor?

After all, if we're not talking about doing right by somebody else, then what are we talking about here?  Is it money?  Or jealousy?  Or cultural pride?

If it's cultural pride, then we're back to the question of whether all cultures deserve equal respect.  Does the collective legacy of Native Americana deserve more respect than the beer-fueled, gladiator-channeling frenzy of NFL fandom?  Probably, but does either side in this debate get to make that call?

Meanwhile, if the Washington Redskins weren't using the term "redskins" today, who else would be using it?  Nobody, probably.  Not in any context.

Might this be an issue our society has already decided?

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