Arts & Entertainment

Review: A 'Showdown' over the racist Washington Redskins





"In 1992, four years after Jesse Jackson joined Stanford students in chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go,” the Native American writer and activist Suzan Harjo, who had moved to Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, became the lead plaintiff in a case against the Washington Redskins football organization. She was joined by six other Native Americans, including the writer Vine Deloria Jr. This intended blow on behalf of Native American dignity—an attempt to force the team to change its name—took the form of a trademark registration case. Under the Lanham Act of 1946, any “mark” that is disparaging or that may bring a group of citizens into disrepute is not afforded the normal trademark protections.

At the time, sports teams at all levels were facing pressure to change such names. The Atlanta Braves kept theirs—arguably neutral or even positive—but in 1986 they had retired Chief Noc-A-Homa, a mascot who actually had a teepee in the bleachers of Fulton County Stadium and performed a war dance when a home team player hit a home run. The St. John’s Redmen became the Red Storm in 1994. Miami University of Ohio dropped the name Redskins in 1997. But those were colleges, and small ones. The Washington Redskins were then and are now one of the richest franchises in all of professional sports, selling many millions of dollars’ worth of their burgundy-and-gold merchandise with the warrior’s head in profile. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary labels “redskin” as “usually offensive,” placing it in the company of “darky,” “kike,” and “dago.” But the Redskins fought the suit for years, and finally, in 2009, the Supreme Court refused to hear the plaintiff’s appeal, letting stand a lower court decision in favor of the football team chiefly on the grounds that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their claim."

Get the Story:
The Racist Redskins (The New York Review of Books 11/10)