A popular refrain from many defenders of the name of Washington’s professional football team is that the United States should be focusing on the “real issues” facing Native Americans instead of the name of a football team. Eliminating “Redskins” from our professional sporting lexicon, they argue, won’t address disparate poverty and deep battles with mental illness and addiction on America’s reservations, neither will it do anything to fix the entrenched societal ostracization Native Americans face, the centuries of government policy that have created these issues, or the government actions that are making them worse today.
That position isn’t unique to the team’s defenders — it is held, too, by many Native Americans and others who oppose the name but think it is nothing more than a symbol of the real problems Native Americans face. The latest to espouse that position is The Atlantic‘s Andrew Cohen, who makes many fine points in his hypothetical letter from Washington owner Daniel Snyder to people who oppose the name. After highlighting the lack of Native Americans on the federal judiciary bench and the harmful effects of automatic budget cuts on Native American communities, Cohen, writing as Snyder, finishes with this:
Tell you what, America, I’ll make you a deal. You appoint a handful of worthy American Indians to the federal bench, you ensure the protection of Native American families through a strengthening of the beleaguered Child Welfare Act, you protect the Indian Health Service the way you protect Social Security and Medicare, or at least start talking passionately about these issues, and I’ll consider changing the name of my football team to something that is less offensive to you. In other words, come back and complain to me about the word “Redskins” when you are finally serious about truly making lives better and more just for the millions of American Indians in our midst.
I imagine most Native Americans would take that deal in a heartbeat. The problem, though, is that deal isn’t on the table and never will be. Cohen is right that the name of a football team isn’t the biggest issue facing Native American communities. But when is the last time we’ve had a mainstream American conversation with any life — much less the verve the “Redskins” issue has taken on — about poverty or the federal judiciary, not just for Native Americans but for Americans in general? When is the last time we’ve had spirited discussions, politically or socially, about the Indian Health Service, depression and suicide on reservations, or Native American education? Those topics, frankly, just aren’t part of mainstream American society, and even if we discuss them on occasion in Congress and state legislatures and in advocacy efforts, they don’t reach average households the way football does, the way Bob Costas does, the way President Obama talking about the name does.
That’s why the “Redskins” debate has a chance to change that. Talking about the name and pushing for a change gives Native American groups a way to elevate the “real issues’ facing their communities into the mainstream discussion in ways they haven’t been able to before. Action from groups like the National Congress of American Indians and the Oneida Nation is a reminder for people whose only thought about Native Americans occurs during football or baseball games that these people do exist, that they are more than the mascots of our favorite sports teams, and that they face all of the real issues Cohen and others have talked about. It gives them — and us in the media — the chance to learn and tell others that this is more than just a name. The word and the general appropriation of Native symbols and culture in sports, research has shown, affects both how white and black Americans view Natives and how Natives view themselves, and the existence of the stereotypes these names help foster only makes the plight of Native Americans on reservations and everywhere else even worse than it already is.
There is a chance fighting over the name won’t elevate those issues, that this will all begin and end as a debate only about a name. There are certainly people who see it that way on both sides and certainly non-Native people who would walk away afterward thinking that we cured a major ill facing Native Americans and can return to ignoring them wholesale. That would be a shame, and maybe we in the media and those of us who aren’t Native but think this name should go need to do a better job of raising up the “real issues” that face Native Americans alongside the “Redskins” debate. Talking about the football team’s name should be an entry point into discussions and actions on the problems Cohen raises — actions and discussions that are already and have been taking place for decades but need more attention. It will only be a barrier to that awareness and action if we allow it to be.