The biggest offense
On a Saturday night in New York, the sports world vilifies Serena Williams for raining threats upon a line judge.
Yet a day later across the river, the same sports world celebrates a team whose nickname is considered a threat to an entire ethnic group.
A pro football season begins with two noted players banished to the sidelines for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and confidence in, the National Football League.”
Yet that same league supports a team whose entire identity is forged through a symbol of detrimental conduct known as racism.
It remains one of the great mysteries in sports, a 77-year-old crime that remains largely ignored and purposely unsolved.
How does a team from the nation’s capital, supported by a fan base of some of the nation’s greatest thinkers, maintain a nickname that is the Native American equivalent to the N-word?
“It is the worst thing in the English language you can be called if you are a native person,” said Suzan Shown Harjo, a Native American writer and public policy advocate who is the lead plaintiff in one of the most compelling lawsuits in sports history.
Seventeen years after challenging the Washington Redskins trademark, Harjo and six others have renewed their fight, petitioning the Supreme Court to examine a lower-court ruling that denied their challenge on a technicality.
It was announced Monday that Harjo’s group will appeal the decision that their challenge was made too late and falls outside the statute of limitations.
The Redskins, named in 1933, were registered as a trademark during a vastly different racial climate in 1967.
Harjo’s group challenges that, now and then, the trademark violates the Lanham Act, which bars trademarks that “disparage” people living or dead.
She’s on time. Of the several high-profile Native American nicknames still alive in sports, nothing is more clearly disparaging than this one.
While the Braves, Indians, Chiefs and Blackhawks all describe a group of people, the Redskin is the clear slur of an individual.
Look it up. It is listed as “offensive” in most dictionaries, and as the name given an Indian hunter’s bounty in several historical publications.
“It is basically characterizing a person by their skin,” Harjo said. “How wrong is that?”
The NFL and the Redskins counter with an argument found on Page 326 of the team’s media guide, citing that the word “Redskin” actually refers to the red paint used on the skin of Indian warriors.
A league spokesman said they stand by the Redskins in this battle and, in fact, the NFL has paid much of the Redskins’ legal fees.
Amazing, isn’t it, how the sports world demands civility and good conduct only as long as it doesn’t get in the way of tradition? When it comes to Native American mascots, insensitivity dies especially hard.
Chief Illiniwek has been banned from the University of Illinois, yet fans still stand up during halftime of football games and chant his name during the traditional time for his appearance.
Some fans at otherwise educated Dartmouth and Stanford, even though they have long since banned their Indian mascots, still show up at games with painted faces on their shirts.
“People lose their sense of discernment when it comes to sports,” Harjo said. “With this particular issue, people just lose their minds.”
Particularly in pro sports, and particularly in Washington, where one man’s insult has become another man’s birthright, and rationalizations run rampant.
It’s stunning how many people there will insist that the word “Redskins” pays tribute to Native Americans . . . even though none of those people are Native American.
“They say, ‘You’re being honored’ . . . we say, ‘We’re being offended,’ ” explained Harjo. “They say honored. We say offended. Then they just tell us to shut up.”
Unlike the Seminoles of Florida State, there is no tribe that supports “Redskin.” Unlike with some other mascots such as Warriors, there are no Native American groups that are even lukewarm about it.
“All national Indian groups support us,” said Harjo, who is president of the Morning Star Institute, a Washington-based native cultural organization.
There is, in fact, precedent for changing the Redskins mascot, as it has already been deleted from major-college sports with little impact.
Miami of Ohio has become the RedHawks, and it didn’t seem to bother quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The University of Utah has become the Utes, who weren’t any less tough when they nearly stole a national football championship last year.
The name can be changed. The name should be changed. There is not a bigger certifiable slur in sports. There is nothing even close.
And don’t even try to compare this to the Fighting Irish, OK?
If you saw a Native American on the street, would you call that person a redskin?
“It’s like putting Aunt Jemima on a helmet,” Harjo said.
There has long been an argument that young native Americans don’t mind being used as sports symbols, but Harjo isn’t buying that as a factor.
“Lots of people are saying, ‘Just let us have our gambling and we’ll stay out of the way,’ ” she said. “That doesn’t make it right.”
Some say Redskins owner Daniel Snyder will never make it right because it will cost too much money in merchandising. But imagine the riches he would reap with new apparel.
Some say NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would never dare mess with one of the league’s cornerstone franchises. But what better way to cement his growing legacy as a curator of equality and fairness?
Of course, it is a formidable task, fighting both men.
“We aren’t just fighting Coke, we’re fighting Pepsi backed by Coke,” Harjo said.
And, indeed, it is a fight they lose every day.
“We are the invisible population,” she said of the approximately 4 million Native Americans. “So racism against our population is also invisible.”
Then again, there is this:
The original lawsuit was filed in 1992, after the Redskins’ Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills. At the time, the Redskins had appeared in four Super Bowls in the previous 10 years.
In the 17 years since, they have appeared in exactly zero Super Bowls.
Hail to the what, exactly?