The Racist Redskins

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Star Collection, D.C. Public Library/Washington Post
Washington Redskins owner George Marshall posing with twins in a publicity photo, 1954

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.

The nickname had been the brainchild of George Preston Marshall, a laundry magnate and flamboyant showman who had bought the Boston Braves football team in 1932. As his second head coach, Marshall hired William “Lone Star” Dietz, a journeyman coach at the collegiate level whose mother was most likely a Sioux. It was in “honor” of Dietz, who coached the team for just two seasons and who at Marshall’s urging willingly put on war paint and Indian feathers before home games, that Marshall changed the team’s name to the Redskins. When Marshall, frustrated by Boston fans’ lack of support, moved the franchise to the nation’s capital in 1937, the coach was gone, but the team name stayed.

The move to Washington meant that the Redskins were now the young National Football League’s most southern team, its only one below the Mason-Dixon Line. Marshall, a native of Grafton, West Virginia, a small railroad town,…


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