The name Redskins is bad, but not all Native American team nicknames are foul

The Washington Redskins name is a point of contention in sports. The name Redskins, rightfully deemed racially insensitive by many groups and people, has been a lightning rod for some who believe all Native American nicknames should be banished.

ESPN’s Bomani  Jones is one of these people and I took exception to his tweets Monday night that “all those native american team names are foul.” And I think not capitalizing proper names is foul. But, to the point, Jones said he grew up as a fan of the Atlanta Braves and that, too, is a name he does not support – and you’d never see him “out here defending the tomahawk chop just because dale murphy was my first favorite player.”

That’s fine and I applaud Jones for calling out racism, but where I have a problem is when he consistently does it in places where racism doesn’t exist. Outside of the name Redskins, the Native American names do not have racist origins. Even when the name Redskins was chosen, it was not a move made with malicious intentions.

When George Marshall, then president of the team, changed the name of the club from the Boston Braves to the Redskins, it was not a controversial move. The team had several Native American players and, at the time, Jim Thorpe – a Native American himself – was coaching the Cleveland Indians football team.

Former Washington owner Jack Kent Cooke had once stated that he admired the Redskins name.

“I think it stands for bravery, courage, and a stalwart spirit and I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue to use it,” said Cooke, a team owner from 1961 until his death in 1997.

The Washington Pigskins? Why not?

Times have changed and I am not implying that the name should remain. If I owned the team, I would change the name to “Pigskins” because of the reference to the football itself and it would pay homage to Washington’s Super Bowl-winning “Hogs” teams of the 1980s and early 90s.

In sports, we constantly talk about team pride, so why would anyone believe that a team name has any roots other than pride and strength? People like Jones, who want to find racism in anything and everything, would have you believe that there is some kind of underlying racist agenda with each of these indigenous names. Jones believes that even an “innocuous” name like Chiefs has malevolent roots.

But the fact is that these names were created as tributes to the groups mentioned. The Seminoles and Sioux actually embrace their team namesakes from Florida State University and the University of North Dakota, respectively.

Bomani Jones

When I responded to Jones, I said, “If all Native American sports team names are ‘foul’, then so are the Celtics and Fighting Irish.” Jones responded in the mature and appropriate way, calling me an idiot before saying the two are not comparable. I asked why not because after all, not all Irish are angry leprechauns as characterized by the Notre Dame caricature logo. He did not respond again.

I am not Irish. I am an American mutt – mostly German and Italian, but also French, Belgian and, yes, Iroquois from my mother’s father. That doesn’t mean I can’t compare an apple to an apple – even when one is red and the other green.

While I would never try to compare anything to the attempted genocide of the Native Americans in our country’s infancy and through the presidency of Andrew Jackson and even into the early part of the 20th century, I will point out that it’s not like the Irish have lived a charmed life.

The early Irish immigrants, many of them Catholics trying to escape religious persecution, were forced into indentured servitude at a time when slavery still existed in the South. From the 17th through the 19th century, discrimination against the Irish was prominent throughout North America. The negative stereotypes were most prevalent in the 19th century when Irish were portrayed as whiskey-swilling drunks ready to fight at the drop of the hat. That is no different than other odious stereotypes that exist – like black men as lazy sex fiends or Native Americans as casino-rich savages prone to alcoholism or Italians as violent mobsters.

The Fighting Irish is OK?

I told Jones that “not everything is racist. But some people who think that way are probably racist themselves.” I then stopped following Jones because I can’t stand people who consistently go out of their way to play the race card. Even that move got me called a racist asshole by one of Jones’ followers. Several others agreed with me and one even called Jones out, asking why he has such a problem with Native American names when he is a black man. While Jones has a right to protest anything he wants, he is part of a group of non-Native Americans who have a bigger problem with the issue than some actual Native Americans do.

While the name Redskins is definitely an inappropriate term, the word Indian is not. It’s not like it was some racial slur created with derogatory intent like, say the N-word is used to refer to African-American people. The name Indian was a simple mistake when Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas and thought he was in India. The mistake was soon realized, but the term Indian has stuck and several Native American tribes still use the name Indian to identify themselves. Monacan, Accohannock, Piscataway, Pocomoke, Shawnee, Nanticoke, Oneida, Mohawk, Chippewa, Seminole, Menominee, Hoh and Ottawa are some examples.

It is understandable why the term Redskins raises so much ire. But a bigger insult to Native Americans is the fact that Andrew Jackson is on American currency. This serves as a constant reminder of the attempted genocide of the indigenous people – a charge led by Jackson, who claimed the United States needed to “find a solution to its Indian problem.” One of the first acts he signed into law as president was the 1830 Indian Removal Act.

Until Jackson is removed from our currency, this is the more heinous slap in the face to Native Americans by a Washington, D.C. institution – and one that is worse than any sports mascot could ever be.

About Ron Clements

Wisconsin native, former Marine, Summa Cum Laude graduate of East Carolina University and a working sports journalist since 1999.