Monday, September 28, 2009

The Name Game or Name Calling

With all the seriousness in his voice he could muster Alvin John Waples (not sure of his spelling) the other day intoned a question about the name of the professional football team based in the Washington area: "Is it offensive to you?" on 102.3 FM.

I did not hear anyone claiming to be a Native American answer...But I did hear some locals call in and so no, it wasn't.

He (AJW) also implied it was a tradition, long held, that the team be called what it was. I wonder if he knows the history of the naming of the team, which was originally based in Boston, Massachusetts. George Preston Marshall named the team for marketing purposes. The prominent teams in Boston at the time were the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Braves. Marshall sought to draw upon the success of these teams through imagery and a similar sounding name.

Also, professional football was nowhere near the draw it is today. High school and college games regularly drew larger crowds and professional baseball was considered America's game (while it still claims that today, it is clear that football has eclipsed baseball!). Marshall, while a vile racist, was a savvy businessman and sought to find a way to better market the team. (You proud Washington fans probably already know that the he had the first marching band at games, right? You probably also know the league essentially held a gun to his head to force him to hire black players, the great Bobby Mitchell being his first, right? And that he passed on his number one draft choice when the first Heisman Trophy Award winner that year was the first black player to be so named, Ernie Davis, right?)

You might know that the team name was used by white folks as a term of derision as they swept across this continent stealing land from sovereign Native Nations (next time you get the chance research how many tribes were forced to break treaties with the United States because of the actions of white folks or the government, Wounded Knee comes to mind. Probably the most heroic Native resistance to white and government treachery was by Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce in the Pacific Northwest who, on signing a peace treaty said, "I will fight no more, forever!" When white men broke the treaty and Washington sent the army, led by General Howard (Howard University's namesake) after the Nez Pierce, it took them three years to chase the Nez Pierce down...they would NOT FIGHT, they just ran, keeping their word!). Yeah...some tradition this country has with the Native Peoples!

Some tradition, right?

So, just in the interest of self disclosure I am a Philadelphia Eagles fan and have been since the Eagles played at Franklin Field (yeah, serious old school...saddest day in my life was when I heard Washington got Sonny Jurgensen for Norm Snead!)

But this isn't about football, so stop your snide remarks. If you moved to Philly wouldn't you still root for your home town team, the one in your heart? Wouldn't you still wear burgundy and gold to the Linc for your team's games up in the City of Brotherly Love? Oh, yeah, right. You got better sense. Why do you think I live down here?

Anyway, like I said, this isn't about football, it's about respect. The question isn't about political correctness either. It's about the simple question of history and about the fact that the name of the Washington team is covered in as much degradation as other names that, if carried by the team, would have been long gone (sambos, coons, the infamous n-words! come to mind).

If you truly studied the issue and heard one Native American, even just one, say how he or she felt offended by that name would you support the 'tradition' started by someone who only cared to separate money from attendees at his games? The tradition is made up, y'all.

I dunno how I would feel. You fans here, in the time I've lived here, have had some incredible teams. I've not been so blinded by my team loyalty to ever deny that. I have rooted for Washington in the Super Bowl, especially after the '87 season when Doug Williams had one of the greatest championship games ever for any quarterback, let alone a black one. I still remember Riggo's run against Miami as one of the most exciting moments ever!

But I cringe when I hear the name of the team. It's just me, I get that. It's just a non-Washingtonian spitting into the wind wishing that somebody would get that the name offends me and several other people I know and several that have been fighting it all the way to the Supreme Court.

Tradition once held that we black folks could be called all sorts of names except a child of God. Traditions once held as sacred in this country held that we could be denied basic human and civil rights, that we could be lynched with impunity for glancing incorrectly at women of a different color.

The name of the Washington team isn't as hurtful as any of these horrendous offenses, but if a Native child ever feels as hurt in his soul as I was on a regular basis by white children, and their parents, calling me nigger back in Philadelphia when he or she hears the name of the Washington football team shouldn't people re-think their attitude about how offensive the name could be to someone other than themselves?

It's just a sport after all. The Danny could make more on merchandising the new name than he'd loose on having to rename the team. And all you Washington fans could have as much fun as Baltimore fans did in renaming the Cleveland Browns when they moved to Charm City!

What's in a name if that name hurts?

Yeah, I have read some commentators saying that there are Native Peoples in this country that are not offended, that they carry Washington banners around and root for the team because, it has been written, they are honored by it. I get that.

For me though it's about those that carry the burden of recognizing their people's history. Let's get the language right to honor their history just as we continue to get the language right and the history right for ours in this country.

I get it Alvin John. I get where you're coming from. Do you get that you aren't the appropriate person asking the question?