Redskins and Bitches

Back in 1972 or 1973, one of our lay teachers, a graduate student named Kieffer, was mentioned in the Washington papers for protesting the use of the name Redskins as demeaning to American Indians. As I recall, there was also a picture of him dressed up as Clawed the Eagle, the American University mascot. (Insert snarky joke about his costume being demeaning to eagles.) That was a new idea to me. We students considered ourselves beyond the uglier sorts of racism, but under George Allen the team was actually winning games and no one took complaints about the name all that seriously.

After the team reached one Superbowl under coach Allen and won several under coach Joe Gibbs, it seemed like almost everyone – white or black, rich or poor – living in the Washington DC area was a rabid fan of the ‘Skins. Even during less successful seasons the DC fan base remained enthusiastic, but complaints about team names like Redskins, Indians and Braves have gained some momentum.

Many argue that such names are a tribute to fighting prowess, and are no different than Warriors or Vikings. But while the Redskins logo shows a dignified man, the Cleveland Indians logo, Chief Wahoo, is a goofy caricature, while the laughing Atlanta Brave is somewhere in between. In any case, it doesn’t matter what you intend, it matters how it is perceived. The Redskins’ owner has promised that the name will never change, but what matters is how the fans feel and how much political pressure can be brought to bear.

In the late 1980s, a Pace University administrator named Nystrom took it upon himself to write a very erudite newsletter about the wins and losses of the Pace women’s basketball team. His daughter was a friend of mine, and put me on the mailing list even though I had no connection to Pace at all. He would quote Shakespeare and John Donne while describing the travails of the young athletes. Pace teams are the Setters, and at that time, their women’s team was called the Lady Setters. Eventually, though, Pace women no longer felt the need for a feminizing name:

… the use of the word ‘lady’ started at Pace, like most other places, out of good intentions. When the steep growth in sports offered for women began a quarter century ago, there was a negative association, she said: women who played sports, by this line of reasoning, were less feminine than those who do not, and the word ‘lady’ was added to refute that notion.
“They didn’t want to masculinize women, … But today more people think of full-fledged athletes as feminine.” So the addition of lady is unnecessary, … At Pace, the use of Lady has been, over time, phased out. … no formal declaration was ever made that it must be buried, but it is longer used.

I do recall seeing an attempt at a Lady Setters logo on one of the newsletters. The drawing showed a tall woman wearing basketball shorts and singlet but with a jowly dog-face. I can’t imagine why it didn’t catch on, but I had an odd thought. Setters are dogs, after all, and female dogs are bitches, so suppose someone had proposed calling the team the Setter Bitches? How far would you get if you proposed that the far more prominent Connecticut women’s basketballers be called the Husky Bitches? Answer: So many people would be offended for so many reasons, that no one (but me) would be crazy enough to even consider such a proposal.

There have been and will be a great many arguments about the history of any team name. The arguments and history count for something, but using a name that might offend only works if the people that might be offended either A – choose to overlook it, or B – have little or no political influence. Native Americans may tolerate the name, though the ESPN poll data that claims so has not been made public, but more importantly they still don’t wield much political influence. So it really comes down to whether they can convince the fan base to feel uncomfortable using the name.

Many fans call them the ‘Skins already, so it is possible that team management could change the name to the Washington Skins and finesse the whole issue. Perhaps the logo could include several hues of fierce warrior types. I doubt anything will change soon, though.

Update 20130715: I just found out that Mr Nystrom passed away a few months ago. He made more than a few of us laugh.

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