What's in a Football Team Name? Tackling the “Redskin” Controversy

Denis Gullickson

talking titletown—denis gullickson—sept 2020

Spend a good chunk of your adult life studying football history and you tend to view current developments in the game through a slightly different lens. Turns of events that raise the dander of other fans, often seem to be a case of “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

After all, the game's been around for about a century and a half in some form or another and even longer if you trace its stirrings back to medieval round ball games and other roustabout pastimes.

In that light, even the game's survival — along with that of other sports — during a global pandemic isn't exactly brand new. Hearken back to 1918 for some stark and startling parallels.

The “sporting world" experienced amazing upheaval as the bookends of World War I and Spanish Influenza created a period of turmoil that would affect those games even today. Many pro athletes joined the military under the auspices of “work or fight" and rejoined sports in the face of the pandemic.

Masks were everywhere in baseball, college football got off to a later-then-normal start and many sports ground to a complete halt. The MLB season was cut short and the Stanley Cup was canceled because both squads were sick.

The Modern Twist

So, what of 2020?

Where to even begin?

It's gotten to the point where the unexpected is completely expected. A couple of hurricanes rumbling toward to continent's southeast coast at once … okay. The death of another black man at the hands of the police … yup. 20,000+ fabrications from our president … check. Another historic figure in the world of arts or entertainment lost to the coronavirus … sure enough. Cities on fire and angry voices in the street … ditto.

The only surprise is no surprise.

Sports in a bubble. Teams hunkered down in quarantine. Masks and social distancing at the ballpark. Cardboard cutouts of fans in the stands. Empty stadiums with piped in crowd noise.

The Washington Football Club disposing of the name its played under since the nascent days of the NFL … why not? Just one more unexpected development in a world of unexpected developments. This one … not really so bad in a historical context.

In 2004, this writer published “Before They Were the Packers: Green Bay's Town Team Days" with friend and coauthor, Carl Hanson. Carl and I set out to locate the origins of football in Green Bay — popularly known as “a drinking town with a football problem." What we learned about the sport's earliest days was astounding.

Characters emerged through our research who were long lost to the dusty pages of history — but essential to getting the ball off the ground in Titletown. Fred Hulbert and T. P. Silverwood, for instance, who managed the earliest teams and early players from Green Bay's near-east and west sides.

Also clear became the significant role of players from the nearby Oneida Reservation — Tom Skenandore, Jonas Metoxen and others — who helped turn the yeoman play of Green Bay's first City Teams into championships.

Above all, we learned that the early game of football was a rough and tumble pursuit. Over a hundred guys died playing the game in a three year stretch about the time the NCAA was formed.

Some Historical Gridiron Context

Suggesting that the game we know as football started on such and such a date at such and such a place is foolishness. Like every sport, it evolved over time — often enough, right there on the turf as squabbles were worked out before kickoff or, even, over a particular play.

“Mob" football games were played in Medieval Europe and made their way colonial America. They were brutal clashes — more like war than sport. Rules for early games were often worked out on the field just prior to the game and disputes broke out about as often as fistfights.

Indeed, many spectators — and practitioners, even — saw the game as a somewhat organized street brawl. “I like football," said an early player. “You can bust a guy in chops and not get thrown in jail for it."

In 1827, “Blood Monday" became a rabid Harvard tradition between the frosh and sophies with violence and bloodshed the benchmarks of a particularly successful contest. Such football was eventually outlawed at most colleges, but the demand brought it back by the 1850s. Basically, these football “games" were made up of unlimited mobs looking to push a ball into a goal area — come hell, highwater, injury or death.

The game modernized and popularized over the 19th Century — particularly on college campuses — but the demand was for some “civilized rules of engagement" to take the edge off the game.

What historical developments were occurring about the same time? Well, a lot of turmoil for certain. European settlers were steamrolling across North America and Native civilizations were decimated in the process.

In the 1820s, when William Webb Ellis is said to have first run with the ball and “Bloody Monday" was being so thoroughly enjoyed at the young nation's most prestigious college, the US Army was waging war on Indian Tribes from Florida to Texas to Wisconsin to the Great Plains.

By the 1860s — as eastern colleges began to hone in on what some called “the science" of the game, those wars continued save for a little break when the north and south decided to square off against each other. Then it was back on with the Indian Wars.

By the 1870s — as the game “modernized" and somewhat tamed itself — the US Army had turned its sites to the western frontier. The same year that Walter Camp gathered football leaders together to hammer out modern rules at the 1876 Second Massasoit Convention, Custer was getting his behind kicked at Little Bighorn.

That celebration was only temporary.

By the 1880s and 90s — as football took a firm hold on the nation's college campuses — the United States was attacking what was left of the western tribes and tossing Native kids in boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian and save the child."

In the nation's capitol building — built and remodeled over the stretch — depictions of Native Americans were pretty consistent: Indian people were shown to be bloodthirsty, warlike and, then, subservient and gone from the nation's legacy.

Sports reporting of the day was hyperbolic, yellow and …. It wasn't worried about being politically correct. After all, who was winning those wars and stealing that territory as it was being settled? What was the question again?

Because the antics on the field of play tended to be loud and unruly — in harsh contrast to the feigned sensibilities of the Gilded Age unfolding around it — sports scribes of the day didn't find it at all out of the question call a team a pack of Indians or cheers as war whoops.

Specific examples can be found in Green Bay's own newspapers of the day.

The Washington Football Team

In that context naming a team the “Redskins" or “Indians" was hardly flattering. Even at the time, some may have felt there was something “honoring" in a team moniker that was really a sweeping stereotype but — given the historic context and the use of the term colloquially — they were kidding themselves.

Boston first saw its “Redskins" take the field as “the Braves" in 1932. Like the Bears in deference to the Cubs a decade earlier, the Braves took their name to affiliate themselves with the Boston Braves National Baseball Team. Hitching one's shaky football wagon to an established baseball nine was viewed as one way to shore up nascent grid teams' fortunes.

The confusion caused owner George Preston Marshall to switch to the “Redskins" the following year and he made it clear that it had nothing to do with recognizing his part-Sioux coach, Lone Star Dietz, or the fact that several of his players “were Indians."

So, what was the historic, football-centric reason for the name? Well, it was intended to invoke some fear for sure as “Redskins" weren't expected to follow the same rules of civilized warfare practiced by the mainstream. One can chuckle here at the layers upon layers of irony … if it weren't all so really sad and brimming with racism and self-deception.

What's in a Name?

Of the thirty-two teams in the NFL today, nearly every one of them has had a name change at some point or another or other names were considered at their founding. The Bears were the Staleys, the Steelers were the Pirates, the Lions were the Spartans, the Jets were the Titans … and the list goes on and on. Add in the shifts from city to city and the whole name and tradition things looks pretty malleable.

And, you know what? There's something kind of historically cool about the “Washington Football Club." Many a team in the early days played under monikers like the Alleghany … or the Knickerbocker … or the Green Bay Athletic or Football Club. Let's keep it!

It's 2020! Watching the “Redskins" moniker fade away in the tide of chaos is practically miniscule at this point.

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