Rick Reilly and the Most Irredeemably Stupid Defense of the Redskins Name You Will Ever Read
By Dave Zirin
You read correctly. In Reilly’s world, Redskins is loved—as he underlines repeatedly—by Native Americans and hated by “white America.” Is this true? If “white America has spoken” it’s been loudly and proudly to keep the Redskins name. The mood, judging from my Twitter feed, is probably best described as “You will pry my Redskins foam finger and matching headdress from my cold, dead hands!”
Every poll shows overwhelming support for preserving the name as is. But saying “white America” is imposing this name change on the Native American community is not only ass-backward. It is incredibly insulting to every Native American—people like the original activists of the American Indian Movement, Suzan Harjo and Vern Bellecourt—who have organized to change it in the face of constant abuse by high-profile, invariably white sportswriters like Rick Reilly. By not giving even token mention to the long history of Native American organizing or agency, Reilly makes them invisible or implies that they are just pawns of this PC liberal elite just looking to be offended for the sake of being offended.
But the contention of people like Harjo and the Oneida Nation, unmentioned by Reilly, is not that mascots are “bad” in a vacuum. Their argument is that we have created a connective tissue between mascots and the dehumanization of their culture, which enables us to look the other way as Native Americans consistently have the lowest life expectancy, highest child mortality rate, and lowest standard of living of any ethnicity in the country. We can debate whether this connective tissue truly exists—I believe it does—but for Reilly to not even acknowledge the issue smacks of the worst kind of blinkered white privilege that people like Suzan Harjo have argued “mascoting” creates.
Reilly then goes on to write of all the Native American school districts that “wear the [Redskins] name with honor” (he names three). Reilly ignores, however, the students in Cooperstown, New York, who organized a successful grassroots campaign to throw the name Redskins in the garbage over the summer. He also ignores that the last forty years are actually a constant history of schools and teams disavowing Native American mascots. Did you know that St. Bonaventure, to use just one example, was once known as the Brown Indians and the Brown Squaws until they changed their names in 1979? Reilly doesn’t either.
But Rick Reilly is not done. He points out that Redskins existed for eighty-two years, so why change now? As mentioned, this is ignorant of the forty years Native Americans have agitated to change it. But forget that. Imagine someone saying to Claudette Colvin, “You people have been on the back of this bus for forty years. Why is this now an issue?” Or to the suffragettes, “Sweetie, you couldn’t cast a vote for a century. Now it’s a problem?” Actually we don’t have to imagine it. That’s exactly what people, the Rick Reillys of their day, have always said to oppressed groups to make them sit down and shut up. Dr. Martin Luther King J. wrote an entire book, Why We Can’t Wait, to answer this. I’d suggest Reilly read some King, but I fear he’d say, “Peter King wrote a book?”
This itself is a form of racism: putting Indians in the background, telling them their opinions, ignoring the long record of activism. I'd never say that all or most Indians actively oppose the "Redskins" nickname. But Thompson and Reilly are claiming none of them do, which is just as dishonest.
In short, Thompson and Reilly are either woefully ignorant or deliberately deceptive when they pretend the mascot issue is a white liberal invention. It's hard to say whether these people are bigger idiots or liars, but I'd go with the latter.