The NFL’s awkward Thanksgiving Day game

Activists are urging reporters not to use the term in their coverage.

Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The story of Thanksgiving—the one we teach children about Pilgrims and Native Americans breaking bread together in the new world—has always been historically dubious at best, and at worst, erases a genocide. American students can reach college age before they become aware of the bloody facts about European settlement in North America.

This Thanksgiving in particular, many families will be confronted with a sharp reminder of this erasure, and of the ongoing mistreatment of Native Americans. NFL football is almost as much a staple of the holiday as turkey, mashed potatoes, and political arguments over dinner, but on Thursday, fans will tune in to watch a game between the New York Giants and Washington, D.C.’s professional team, whose name is deeply offensive a racist slur for Native Americans.

For years, dozens of national organizations and thousands of ordinary citizens have lobbied team owner Dan Snyder and the rest of the league to do away with the term “R*dskins,” an offensive moniker long used to disparage Native Americans. Those protestations have fallen on deaf ears: Snyder in particular has aggressively resisted those calls by hiring public relations firms to mount a defense of the name.

But even while Snyder resists change, a consortium of Native American and civil rights groups are having more success convincing others to abandon the name.

Change the Mascot, a campaign led by the Oneida Indian Nation, delivered a letter this week to newsrooms around the country urging them not to use the team name in their coverage of the game.

“Thanksgiving is often the only major American holiday that brings Native people and their history into the national conversation,” the letter states. “Using the holiday to promote the Washington team’s derogatory name will further marginalize Native Americans who have already experienced a history of oppression and violence.”

The effort to convince newsrooms not to use the name has already paid dividends. Several national news outlets and prominent sports columnists, including Slate, the New York Daily NewsSports Illustrated’s Peter King, no longer use the name when writing about the team. ThinkProgress also does not use the term. Even local papers like the Richmond Times Dispatch and the Washington Post have urged their reporters not to use the name in their coverage. City Paper, after a legal battle with Snyder, abandoned the term in 2012.

“Repeating the Washington football team’s name on Thanksgiving Day encourages people across the country to perpetuate this painful racial slur,” reads the letter, which was cosigned by several other groups including the NAACP, Demos, and the Advancement Project.

Even as advocates for the name change have struck out with the NFL, the push to rethink how teams market themselves has yielded dozens of victories around the country. Universities that used other mascots usually associated with Native American culture—Braves, Chiefs, Indians, etc.—have begun to move away from those terms. Sports apparel giant Adidas launched a campaign to provide financial and technical support to any high school that decides to change their problematic nickname. Even other professional sports franchises are starting to face pressure from fans who are uncomfortable supporting racist imagery.

Those victories may well prove more meaningful and more lasting than legal ones. This summer, the Supreme Court ruled (in a case unrelated to Washington’s NFL team) that federal trademarks are protected under the first amendment, even when the mark in question is racist, derogatory, or otherwise offensive. That decision effectively overturned an earlier ruling by a lower federal court, which had canceled Washington’s trademark protection over its logo and name because both were deemed racist.

“This is an issue we have always believed will not be solved in a courtroom, and this ruling does not change some very clear facts,” said National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jackie Pata after the Supreme Court decision was handed down. “Washington’s football team promotes, markets and profits from the use of a word that is not merely offensive – it is a dictionary-defined racial slur designed from the beginning to promote hatred and bigotry against Native Americans.”