When I was a nipper of eight or nine years old, I went through a phase of being obsessed with American football. This was in the early 1990s, when your televised consumption was dictated by four broadcast stations, and Channel 4’s move into exotic territory with football from Italy and the most popular sport in the US was an exciting development.
Having decided to back the Miami Dolphins, for no other initial reason than my mum liked their (very photogenic) quarterback Dan Marino, I followed maybe one full season closely, before gradually losing interest and switching back to rugby and the British version of football. I did still watch the gridiron occasionally, although the main highlight was often the catchy title sequence, where the team logos, encapsulated on the helmets, flashed across the screen in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it montage.
Sometimes I would press freeze on the tape – the programme was on late and had to be recorded – and study the logos more closely. My favourite helmet was the Washington Redskins, with its powerful depiction of a Native American, cosseted in a yellow and white circle, surrounded by a dark, dark red.
I was reminded of this passing childhood fad when hearing news at the weekend about a renewed campaign to rename the Redskins. When I say “renewed”, it has never gone away, and has been the subject of a federal court case as recently as 2017. The term, which dates back to the 18th century at least, was used by white people to describe the skin colour of Native Americans, as different from both their own and that of African slaves. It appears that “red” was regarded as acceptable but understandably, according to some studies, a growing number of people now say they find the term offensive.
The campaign has been reinvigorated by the global protests and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has already seen a number of international brands either do away with racially insensitive trademarks, or apologise for the role their forebears had in perpetuating racism and seek to make reparations. A statue of the Redskins’ founder was taken down by Washington’s local conventions and sports authority on Friday. As pressure mounts on the Redskins, some of those who want to keep the name, a grouping which includes owner Dan Snyder, have begun re-iterating their argument that it honours Native American heritage, rather than disparaging it.
To me, this argument is nonsense. I have been quick at times in my life to dismiss claims of offence taken by people, probably too quick in truth. I have always believed history is history and it shouldn’t be rewritten or hidden, nor should we judge our ancestors solely by our own values. I still do believe this. However, my prior rigid stance does not properly consider how the scars of history can resonate and cause pain in the present. Given that white immigrants were either directly or indirectly responsible for a catastrophic decline in Native American numbers between 1500 and 1900, who are these same settlers’ descendants to say that the name is an honour?
The row will drag on. There are significant commercial implications for a rebrand, as well as regulatory hurdles to jump. That said, there are also commercial opportunities, in the form of entirely new merchandise and a potential extended fan base. We might think this shouldn’t matter, but you can bet that it does.
A drive to rename the Redskins has existed in some form or another since they were first founded in Boston, 88 years ago. It has gained momentum at times and fallen away at others. Given the extraordinary collective response to racism and prejudice since George Floyd’s death on 25 May, an eventual renaming feels more likely than ever before.