Between concussions, the Ray Rice assault video, and the sexual assault accusations against Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the National Football League (NFL) began its season last week engulfed in a swirl of controversy. This has become the norm for an organization increasingly beset by scandal.
Amidst all of these scandals, there has also been an ongoing discussion and debate in the last year or so on the name of the team from Washington, D.C.. The Redskins have been battling ever-mounting pressure to change their name from groups such as the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Oneida Indian Nation, both of whom released commercials during the last football season protesting the name. A representative from the NCAI stated last year, “Cheering for a football team should never include the casual use of a racial slur. It is important for all teams and all of their fans that the name of the D.C. team is changed.”
Recently, several prominent news organizations like ESPN and the Washington Post have decided not to refer to the team as the Redskins anymore in their reporting. While this may reduce the use of the slur, it does not solve the root of the problem. From fans dressing up in redface to the giant headdress-wearing Redskins logo on the field, the offensive name is inescapable. This season, Washington fans will have to ask themselves if they are comfortable supporting a team called the Redskins knowing that organizations representing Indigenous communities across the U.S have denounced the name. And here in Montreal with McGill’s football season underway, perhaps we should be asking ourselves similar questions about the Redmen, a name that all varsity male sports at McGill use.
The parallels between the two cases are numerous. For example, both organizations argue that their team name has benign origins. McGill states that the term “Redmen” does not refer to Indigenous people at all, but instead to the colour of the jerseys worn by the players and/or to the school’s Scottish heritage. However, Redmen has been used as a slur against Indigenous people in the past.
Similarly, Dan Snyder, the owner of the Redskins, stated that his team’s name “is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect — the same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the original Americans.” That may be what Dan Snyder, a rich white man, thinks the team’s name and logo stands for, but he does not have the authority to speak on this issue or decide how to honour Indigenous peoples. Deejay NDN of A Tribe Called Red, an all-Indigenous musical group, has lampooned this tendency for offensively named sports teams to defend themselves by saying they ‘honour’ Indigenous peoples. NDN flips the script, sporting a “Caucasians” shirt clearly modelled on the insignia of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. After being told the shirt was offensive, he took to Instagram and, in words intentionally echoing owners like Dan Snyder, said, “I’m truly sorry if I offended anyone while wearing my ‘Caucasians’ shirt. I thought I was honouring you.”
Despite all of this criticism, Washington clings to their official story about the origins of its name – that it honours an early coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, who claimed to be of Oglala Lakota heritage. However, there is a large amount of evidence suggesting Dietz was actually born to German parents, and was investigated by the FBI for dodging the draft by pretending to be an Indigenous person. Although this is still a controversial issue, if the evidence about Dietz is true then team name honours a white man who traded on the image of Indigenous peoples for personal profit.
McGill also argues that the name Redmen is harmless, though it uses a different explanation than Washington, calling on the university’s Scottish heritage. This may be partially true, but regardless of the true origin of the name, there is no doubt that McGill’s varsity teams have associated themselves with Indigenous symbolism in the past. Before the junior varsity and intermediate teams were cut because of funding problems in the 1970s, they were known as the McGill Indians, with only the varsity teams being known as the Redmen. Furthermore, from 1982 to 1992, McGill’s football and hockey teams used an image of an Indigenous person in a headdress as the insignia on their helmets and uniforms, just like the Washington Redskins do currently. Despite McGill’s claims to the contrary, the Redmen name clearly referred to Indigenous people, and was associated with an offensive logo. No one going to a McGill football game in the 1980s would think that the name Redmen referred to something other than the person depicted on the team’s helmet.
Yet despite mounting pressure, Washington refuses to even entertain the idea of a name change. In a press conference in May 2013, Dan Snyder stated, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” Snyder’s flippant, disrespectful language at that press event focused even more attention on his team’s name than there had been before. The negative reaction to Snyder’s public statements has shown that this kind of disregard for the basic rights of Indigenous people no longer has any place in the world of sports. The only acceptable outcome of this controversy is a name change.
McGill, like Snyder and his organization, has been stubborn when confronted about the name of its men’s teams. When, reacting to pressure from student groups, the Athletics Board decided to remove the Indigenous insignia from team garb in 1992, Richard Pound, chairman of the Athletics Board, stated that the name Redmen would be preserved because they “believe the Redmen name and logo are quite separate issues.” That is spurious reasoning. Getting rid of the logo does not change the fact that the Redmen name has been associated with images of Indigenous people. McGill lost an opportunity to completely break away from its culturally appropriative team name in 1992. It should take the current outrage about the Redskins as a hint that these kinds of names are not acceptable anymore.