Redskins Debate Rhetoric from the Capitol

Redskins Helmet

In 1932, a professional football team was born in Boston: The Boston Braves. Simply named after their home, Braves Field, the title stuck for only one year before the club moved to a new stadium in the city and rechristened themselves as the Boston Redskins. The head coach at the time, “Lone Star” Dietz, publicly claimed to be Sioux (which is disputed today), and the team’s owner used the name Redskin to honor him. In 1937, the Redskins moved to Washington, DC where they have remained ever since. After winning the Super Bowl in 1992, which brought the Redskins into the national, controversy began to swirl over the offensiveness of the name and several special interest groups took up the cause. Over the last two decades, countless debates over the name have popped up. In 2013, the United States Congress decided to give their support and penned an open letter, which was separately sent to the team’s current owner, the NFL Commissioner, and the primary sponsor of the stadium. The open letter is a crucial genre designed to project the authors’ stance on this specific issue and start a broad dialogue about the controversy. The goal is to bring attention to the letter’s recipients, sparking some action on their part.

Any piece of persuasive literature, or rhetoric, will have a clear agenda, and it is very important to examine the ethos of the author and the credibility of the document. Stating the author’s position publicly is one of the main focuses of the open letter. The first to sign the letter, Tom Cole, is the Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. Cole, a Republican representative from Oklahoma, is a registered member of the Chickasaw Nation and is one of the two Native Americans in Congress. As an ardent supporter of American Indian issues and rights, Cole has made a career of aiding their causes, mainly due to his own heritage and the population of Native Americans in his home state.

Second to sign the letter, Betty McCollum is also a Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus and a Democratic representative from Minnesota. McCollum is widely known as one of the most progressive members of Congress, and aggressively supports minorities’ rights. Social equality has been one of her greatest causes in past voting, and McCollum has a substantial American Indian population in her home state as well. The other eight delegates to sign the letter are a mix of strongly progressive Democrats and representatives from states with high populations of Native Americans, mainly from the Midwest and southwest. As the debate over the Redskins’ name found an increasingly national stage, those in Congress who took this issue as a platform used their strong reputations to lend credibility as they made their support public.

Congress promotes starting a dialogue about the name change through their extensive and persuasive usage of racially charged language. The letter begins with the authors “urging” the owner to change the name, eschewing less inciting terms such as “asking” or “considering” in an attempt to show urgency. The word redskin is also kept in lowercase, taking away the legitimacy of the team name Redskin and portraying it as a term that has darker connotations than simply representing the historic Washington football franchise. The implications address the original use of the word, meant to describe the Native Americans by the color of their skin. Congress uses the word “brand” (as in brand-name) in quotation marks as a direct parallel to “redskin”, seemingly to assert that the entire organization’s “brand” is flawed and illegitimate. The first paragraph ends by claiming that “the use of redskin…is derogatory, demeaning, and offensive” and the next paragraph begins by comparing the “racial slur” to the “N-word among African Americans or the W-word among Latinos.” This provocative use of language, whether just or not, brings other minority groups into the picture and conjures up images of other past injustices, such as slavery, civil rights, and anti-immigration hatred. Although only one group is primarily affected by the name, Congress decides to push three separate causes together in order to strengthen the Native Americans’ stance. The authors also constantly shift the way they describe “redskin”, changing between “slur”. “racial term”, an“epithet” and a “disparaging term.” By using a variety of meanings, the document seeks to reach out to many people in different ways and hopes to draw attention.

The next paragraph quotes two different sources, the Chief of the Penobscot Nation and former officials from the FCC. Chief Kirk Francis spoke with very specific language, calling the term redskin a “painful reminder” of “gruesome acts” of “ethnic cleansing” and a “despicable and disgraceful act of genocide.” Congress also describes the actions in their words as “the hunting and killing of Penobscot Indians like animals.” The word choice used attempts to draw comparisons to the mass killings and horrific violence in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia in the recent past, which the audience may have an easier time relating to (whereas violence against Native Americans has gone back over a century and is not a hotly discussed topic, ethnic genocide has been a somewhat more approached subject, as seen in such common films like Hotel Rwanda). Language in this paragraph also serves to show how Native Americans were viewed in a sub-human light, especially through the reference to “animals”. The section concludes with Federal Communications Commission agents going on record that “the term redskin is a racially-stereotyped name that needs to be changed.” As the group who monitors all television broadcasts, where the name Redskins is announced hundreds of times, it is a powerful statement of the complexities of the issue, with major national networks using the term on the air on a daily basis.

At this point, the letter flows from highly opinionated, personal language to the legal aspects of the cause. This serves the document well, by showing multiple faces of the argument. First referenced is a newly introduced bill which would disallow the word “redskin” to be federally trademarked. Included with this are several instances in the past where the team has had trouble with trademark applications that involved “Redskin”. The authors then cite the National Congress of American Indians and the twenty seven other tribes who support the legislation, naming each of them. The final piece of evidence included is the NFL’s Diversity Mission Statement, which is used as the finishing touch to Congress’ argument. They claim that the League’s “Commitment to Diversity” can never be met while the current name is in use and the team is restricting the NFL from ever reaching the “culturally progressive and socially reflective organization” that it seeks to embody. The letter ends by returning one last time to the harmful effects that the use of the word “redskin” has on Native Americans, and seeks to have continued discussion with the parties involved. It was sent to Redskins owner Dan Snyder, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, primary sponsor FedEx Chairman and CEO Fred Smith, and the owners of the other thirty-one NFL teams. The document was also published as an open letter to the general public through the media so that millions of people could read it. With varying audiences in mind, Congress drafted the letters very carefully in order to capture the attention of the greatest number of people possible and garner the most support for inciting a name change. This highlights the final goal of the open letter, which is to bring more attention to the letter’s recipients in an attempt to pressure the key players into the desired action.

While Congress intended their message to be a starting point of discussion, they also hoped its outreaching effects would eventually lead to a strengthening of their position. The letter succeeded in reaching out to the American platform of debate in several ways. One of the most notable audiences it struck was with those voting in the race for the Governor of Virginia. The idea of the name change came up during an official debate between the two candidates, including the questions of whether they believed the word was offensive and if they would support the cause to rename the team. The issue has also found prominence in several sports news reporting agencies, such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN, and it appeared on many television network-talking platforms. Most importantly, however, is that the letters have inspired new activism. A national campaign originating in upstate New York named Change the Mascot has garnered significant press coverage and gained the support of many prominent individuals, most notably Peter King, a Sports Illustrated senior writer and the 2010 National Sports Writer of the Year. The group protests Redskins’ games and attracts significant press, carrying the cause until some resolution is reached.

It is clear that Congress’ action has inspired a reaction. Through these letters, they not only reached out to the NFL officials but found a separate, distinct audience amongst the American public. The language used seeks to conjure up moving images of hatred and is suitable for both the direct recipients of the letters and the common American reader. By reaching out to multiple audiences, the authors gain the widespread support that they desire and promote new action to result from their cause.

Image Courtesy of US News.

Will Graboyes
Georgetown University Class of 2017

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