The Washington NFL Team’s Prospective Name Change, Barstool, and Evolution

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Emma Carmichael’s essay “The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It’s Gamergate,” published at Deadspin in Oct. 2014, may be the single-most prescient article and best reflection of the current social and political climates. I find myself thinking about thistory regularly, almost daily, as so much of our discourse follows the same blueprint of excusing and justifying currently bad behavior by leaning on critics’ own past misbehavior.

In this context, the concept itself is disingenuously weaponized. It’s a form of intimidation designed to stifle dissent, an ironic device in response to Cancel Culture. However, there’s a kernel of bitter truth to be extracted. None of us is perfect. The ability to mature and evolve requires us all to take an oftentimes uncomfortable examination of our own past beliefs, language and behavior.

Such concepts have weighed on me especially heavy this week commensurate with some of the bigger sports story in a sports-less world. I have been a vocal advocate for the Washington NFL franchise adopting name and imagery changes for a while now, including removing the nickname from my own writing.

At the same time, I have had to reconcile my own past ignorance.

I grew up in northern Arizona, not far from the Navajo and Hopi Nations. Basketball is incredibly popular on Arizona reservations, and I spent my high school years playing a number of games against teams from these regions. My first team in the State Playoffs coincided with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s tenure as a coach at Alchesay High on the White Mountain Apache Reservation.

Around the same time, college sports went through a reckoning with cultural appropriation of Native imagery. St. John’s and Miami U. abandoned racist nicknames in the ’90s, before the NCAA mandated universal changes in the mid-2000s.

Having remembered programs like Marquette dropping the name Warriors, we would play an opponent like Tuba City that used the name and the very logo Marquette abandoned. Well, if they’re using it, they must be OK with the name.

Now, this line of thinking is incredibly juvenile and ignorant. It wasn’t until I was older that I started to understand the concepts of cultural appropriation and the indignity of an entire group of people’s repurposed for commercial purposes. Friday’s news that Washington is looking into a potential name change coincides for me with reading of Lars Anderson’s book Carlisle vs. Army, chronicling a 1912 matchup between Jim Thorpe’s legendary, all-native team; and a West Point side with Dwight Eisenhower.

Anderson skillfully contrasts that matchup with the continued oppression and genocide of Natives in the early 20th Century, including the very fresh memories of the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

At a younger time in my life, however, I relied on much lighter fare. The below Daily Show segment made a lasting impression on me as a teen in reshaping my views on the use of Indigenous names and images.

The above is a spiritual forerunning to Bomani Jones’ controversial “Caucasians” t-shirt, which lampooned the racist caricature racist caricature of Chief Wahoo. Jones sparked an ironic backlash from those who decried the logo. I also suspect it had an intended impact of reaching some otherwise ignorant viewers as the Daily Show segment had for me.

This is an example of effective satire, a device too often ill-applied these days. Satire’s at its best when it challenges power structures by mocking their absurdities. Punching down isn’t satire.

Enter into the conversation Dave Portnoy.

On the same week that the Washington NFL franchise addressed increased pressure to change its name, the Barstool Sports founder followed up several instances he refused to apologize for past issues of stereotyping and racist language with a dubious apology and promise to do better.

Now, I don’t advocate for the closure of his outlet anymore than I want the NFL to drop Washington’s membership. What I would like to see is a platform that reaches impressionable and ignorant teenagers and undergrads, as I was when I was in the target Barstool demo age, not using its clout to perpetuate stereotypes.

Further, it matters because of how common the attitudes Portnoy expressed really are. His explanation that a comparison between Colin Kaepernick and Osama bin Laden was justifiable on the basis that many Americans assumed after 9/11 that “somebody with a turban on” was a terrorist.

And you know what? His assertion’s correct! Not that it excuses what he said 15 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, of course, but rather that a sizable portion of our country did and continues to judge Muslims thusly. Now, the quote attributed to Portnoy means Muslims, despite incorrectly invoking turbans — headwear worn in the Sikh community — but is still correct in that Sikhs around the U.S. were targets of racially motivated violence following 9/11.

These particular attitudes and this specific episode may be more extremely examples, but instances of the Barstool founder repeating Ja Rule lyrics or a something he overheard is a more common form of racism, and the closer parallel to the Washington NFL organization with that sense of well if they use it, why can’t I?

The similarities go deeper. Both Portnoy and Washington owner Dan Snyder, as well as their defenders, invoke charity work to either justify or deflect. In Snyder’s case, charity has been an especially insidious defense.

Back on those same Navajo lands, where the uptempo brand of “Rez Ball” vexed my high school team’s press-break offense, Washington adopted a surrogate at Red Mesa High School. This is an especially touchy subject, as the franchise’s donations help a school and community but Snyder’s motivation certainly comes off like image laundering.

In this lies an argument I have seen and heard more than once from defenders of Washington’s name; that the franchise invents monies in Native communities. It’s odd to assert this must somehow be contingent on using an archaic name, and I would like to think, or at least hope, Snyder and Co. are not so callous as to use these communities as hostages.

On the flip side of that, however, too often well-intentioned folks’ effort tends to begin and end with social media. Changing the Washington NFL team’s name is a noble goal, but replacing symbolism is just a surface-level measure against the systemic issues. This is as much true in this moment as in the ongoing Second Civil Rights movement. But the symbolism can, at least, be an entry point for greater change.

Make no mistake: Not everyone wants to evolve or make changes. Snyder has venomously balked at a name change multiple times, including the not-so-distant past, only reversing course once sponsors stepped in. Portnoy aggressively defended his position until partnerships were threatened. Money talks and all that.

But everyone of us without exception should have introspection on our own, past ignorance and biases. It might help us all enact more meaningful change while disarming the one of the more harmful playbooks against progress.