When owner Assem Allam announced his intention to rebrand newly-promoted Premier League side Hull City AFC as the Hull City Tigers, the move was greeted with a mixture of horror and derision.
The fact Allam’s decision was driven by commercial motivations – and came without public consultation – infuriated fans of the East Yorkshire club, leading to protests by supporters groups.
Fans of all sports are loathe to see owners, usually new to their clubs, tinker with long and often storied traditions, even in cases that to outsiders may appear to be relatively minor (the Tigers nickname has, after all, been associated with Hull for most of the club’s history). Sadly, the efforts of protestors often prove little more than a principled stand, easily shrugged off and ignored by those controlling the club.
However, a much larger battle is being fought in the US around one of American football’s flagship franchises, the Washington Redskins; one which many feel is finally coming to a head after years of campaigning by Native American groups for the removal of the team’s name – which is still considered a racial slur.
ESPN presenter Keith Olbermann has labelled it ‘the last racist term you can say at the office without getting fired’, but Redskins owner Dan Snyder has dug his heels in, saying: ‘We’ll never change the name. NEVER – you can use caps.’
Polling of Native Americans has been inconclusive, with both sides of the debate able to claim majority support depending on where you look. A 2004 poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed 90 per cent of American Indians were not bothered by the term, a result which directly contradicted the 81 per cent who three years earlier said they were offended in an Indian Country Today survey.
But a growing number of non-native Americans, including many media outlets covering the NFL, are now beginning to question the use of a term that so openly disparages a minority within the US population.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated, one of the most respected voices covering the NFL, made waves this month when he decided to stop using the term in his work, citing his personal unease at using the name, and he’s not alone. Reporters from USA Today and websites such as Slate and New Republic have taken similar positions, instead calling the team ‘[coach] Mike Shanahan’s football team’ or, simply, ‘Washington’.
Mike Wise, a columnist with the Washington Post, was among the first to take such a stand, initially phasing out the word Redskins from his work in 2005, before doing so again earlier this year.
‘I’m sure there are many American Indians who aren’t offended by it,’ Wise told Metro, ‘but I’ve talked to enough that have said otherwise, people that were called “dirty redskins” as children and the feelings that conjured up for them, to see their point of view. I believe there are much more against the name than for it.
‘It’s an issue I’ve written about at every paper I’ve worked at since college. I was moved in the early 90s by a gentleman from Minnesota, who was a Sioux Indian, and a story he told me about taking his son to a high school basketball game. A Caucasian man in war paint was going crazy at half-time, doing a dance in the child’s face and the little boy just turned away and cried.
‘The man could see his son’s self-esteem was destroyed and so he went out and convinced 39 Minnesota high schools to change their Indian nicknames. He didn’t want his son to be a stereotype out of a John Wayne western movie. When he told me that story it was pretty convincing and many Native Americans I’ve met since have communicated those same feelings to me.’
Wise attributes the recent surge in media attention in part to last season’s turnaround in the Redskins’ fortunes on the field, as sensational rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III led the team to its first NFC East division title since 1999 and back into the national spotlight.
‘This is the most I’ve seen it sustained in almost 20 years,’ said Wise. ‘I remember when they last played in the Super Bowl, in Minnesota in 1992, which is an area where there are still a lot of tribes, there were a lot of protests and a lot of players were asked about it. That was the last time it got so much attention.’
Opponents of the name have made various attempts to force change since that Super Bowl appearance, from lobbying politicians to embarking on lengthy legal challenges over the trademarking of the term ‘Redskins’, but this year has seen those efforts take on a fresh impetus.
There were protests on the team’s first visit to the Midwest this season, to Wisconsin to play the Green Bay Packers, with a larger demonstration expected when they travel to Minnesota in November, while the Oneida Indian Nation have launched a new campaign called Change The Mascot, which includes a radio ad that states: ‘That word, Redskins, is not a harmless term. We do not deserve to be called Redskins. We deserve to be called what we are: Americans.’
But with Snyder entrenched in his position and the NFL showing no real desire to use its influence to nudge the team in either direction, simple pleas for change appear destined to fall on deaf ears.
‘My unsolicited advice to those protesting the name, I wouldn’t go after Snyder, I would go after his wallet,’ said Daniel Kaplan, NFL reporter at the Sports Business Journal, who believes the Redskins name will ultimately survive into the future.
‘I would go after the sponsors – the name on top of his stadium is FedEx – I would go after them and the other companies he does business with and the major suite holders at the stadium. That is about the only thing that would get him to change his mind, if he thought this was affecting his bottom line.’
Wise agrees that dollar signs are the only thing that will grab Snyder’s attention, but is convinced a tipping point has been reached and that we’ll see Griffin quarterbacking the Washington Something-Elses before the end of this decade.
‘I’ve never seen more momentum, I don’t see this going away,’ said Wise. ‘Players have been ordered not to answer questions on it as it’s become such a distraction.
‘I think the issue will be taken out of Dan Snyder’s hands within three to five years. Essentially, the NFL will decide that keeping the name is costing them more money than changing it. I believe either a threat or an actual formal boycott of team and league sponsors, by not just the National Congress of American Indians but other groups they will lobby and get support from, will eventually scare the NFL into changing the name.’
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