NFL’s Washington Redskins and the Oneida Nation

Joe Gibbs, professional football coach, at training camp for the Washington Redskins.

Joe Gibbs, professional football coach, at training camp for the Washington Redskins.

Looking for a good research paper topic for your course on Native American Studies? The news is ripe with one of the long controversial topics in that subject area: team mascots. Since the 1960s, there has been contention about the use of Native American tribal names – or, worse, slurs – as the names for sports or school teams. In 2005, the NCAA required schools with Native American team names to change their logos and mascots – unless they received a waiver from the tribe they were named after. And in 2013, the controversy has been stirred up again as the Oneida Nation launched an ad campaign during the NFL season, targeting National Football League team the Washington Redskins. On October 14, sportscaster Bob Costas got in the thick of the controversy by making a statement during halftime on Sunday Night Football. Here’s the story behind the most recent episode in this debate.

Symposium at the National Museum of the American Indian

Back at the beginning of 2013, the National Museum of the American Indian held a symposium where the issue of mascots – particularly the Washington Redskins – was discussed. “It’s easy to dismiss the fuss as political correctness in America once again run riot,” wrote Rupert Cornwell in his “Washington Redskins – time for a name change?” in The Independent on February 17, 2013. But the self-acclaimed Redskins fan acknowledged the case critics make. “Could you imagine that museum where the symposium took place, in its hallowed location by the Washington Mall, being called the National Museum of the Redskin? Or try a few comparable variants (the precise degree of offensiveness is naturally subjective): the Washington Darkies, say, or the Washington Eyeties, the Washington Ragheads, the Washington Spics. No way.”

NFL season

As the NFL season began, so did an ad campaign sponsored by the Oneida Nation, criticizing the team name. Though the Redskins have been around since 1937, and some (possibly outdated) polls have indicated that most Native Americans are unconcerned about the issue of mascots, the Oneida Nation shows no intention of giving the Redskins, and owner Dan Snyder, an out. At a symposium on October 7, hosted by the Oneida Nation at the Ritz Carlton in Georgetown, Native American leaders and citizens gathered to discuss the harmful nature of the issue. A psychologist made a presentation about how mascots can have harmful psychological and social effects on both Native American and non-native children. But while the symposium was inclusive, no NFL representatives were in attendance.

However, while the invited NFL representatives did not meet at the symposium, Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president for labor policy and government affairs, has scheduled a meeting with the Oneida Nation representatives. Rob Schmidt, who compiled several articles into an overview of the topic in his October 7, 2013 post “Oneida symposium challenges ‘Redskins’” on his blog Newspaper Rock, commented “The November-or-sooner meeting between NFL officials and the Oneida is the real news coming out of the symposium. Is it a real sign of the NFL’s shifting position, or a gimmick to placate protesters by pretending to take them seriously?”

Bob Costas’ commentary

NFL viewers may have been able to remain unaware of the growing controversy until this past Sunday, when Bob Costas, at halftime of a game between the Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, made his opinion on the topic public. Costas’ two minute remarks during halftime, according to Huffington Post writer Chris Greenberg, who covered the commentator in “Bob Costas Says Redskins Name Is ‘An Insult, A Slur’ During NBC’s ‘Sunday Night Football’,” included Costas’s opinion that “It’s an insult, a slur no matter how benign the present-day intent.”

In follow-up comments on an October 14 broadcast of Dan Patrick’s radio program, covered by Dan Steinberg in the Washington Post DC Sports Blog, “Bob Costas explains his Redskins remarks,” Costas tackled opponents who criticized his choice of time to deliver the remarks. While some have said the commentator should have stuck to football, Costas responded, “Nonsense. … This is so obvious. It’s a football issue. It’s right there. It’s a football issue. … Sports has inevitably intersected with issues that appear, to some extent, to be outside the field. And on some occasions, sports has actually been the best vehicle for discussing these issues.”

What do you think about the issue of mascots? Tell us in the comments. 

You can read more about Native American culture and society on Questia.

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