Losing My Team

We are in the year 2014 AD, and in the year 2014 AD one’s allegiance to a sports team is as strong as one’s allegiance to country or crest. I can’t trace my own nationality three generations deep, yet I can recite each of the sports loyalties of all far reaching cousins and in-laws for every professional sport. Of course family, friends, health, yada yada… but judged by actions and bank accounts, it would appear for many Americans the ultimate value is one’s allegiance to a sports franchise and virility therein.

My name is Eric VanValin, and I am a Washington Redskins fan.

It was never a problem until this past year. A year in which I have fielded the allegations against my beloved team’s name, condemned as a symbol of offense worthy of removal. To find out what this means for a fanatic like myself I’ve spent an absurd amount of time holding a personal court in which I play judge and jury while the case is laid out in front of me, mostly on twitter.

What’s the big deal? Just change it.

One does not ask Chicago to just give up the Bears, New York to lose it’s Yankees, or tell a Los Angelino the Lakers are simply no more. Forgive me Mr. Shakespeare, but a team by any other name would not smell as sweet. The loyalty to a name and everything it represents cannot simply be willed away or popped like a pustule. This here requires an amputation.

When it started.

I’m from a border state. The food, people, and culture of Virginia have been extracted from equal parts North and South, resulting in the fact that it’s really hard to pinpoint anything that is distinctly Virginian outside of Monticello.

This may or may not be the mouse I'm using to write this.

My mousepad.

Along with crab infused entrees, we must share our professional football team with the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia. Yes, DC claims many other teams in many other sports, but none with the breadth of the Washington Redskins, who have owned Virginia since their inception just as they once owned all of the South.

My earliest memories of reading are reading about the ‘Skins in The Virginian Pilot over cereal before school. They quickly became my team of choice in video games, and all Redskins sport cards were given prominent placement at the front of my meticulously organized card binder.

The pivotal moment in my fan formation can be traced back to the home of a family friend in the winter of ‘92. January 26th, 1992, to be exact. When, amidst a room full of my parent’s friends, I witnessed the Redskins win the Super Bowl in dominant fashion against the Buffalo Bills1. The grown beings around me celebrated this day like it was all of the holidays rolled up in one. The gravity of the moment was not lost, and my nine year old self had no other response than total allegiance to the victors.

But it’s offensive.

The only thing I found offensive in over two decades of fandom was the team’s performance. In addition to being shrouded in controversy, desperation, and an overall pathetic lack of tact, the franchise has recorded 152 wins, 212 losses, and 1 tie since that fateful Sunday in 1992. Unfortunately, losing does not dwindle the passion of a true fan.

This has been kept safe for 22 long years.

This has been kept safe for 22 long years.

No, a love this strong does not tarry. Every Sunday, regardless of their pitiful record I am planted firmly on the couch, channeling victory vibes, and scaring loved ones around me with yelps of ecstasy during the occasional positive on-field development.

The name and logo have always been symbols that I’ve given the full regard possible. They received the high childhood honor of being scribbled in thousands of pages of schoolbooks and being plastered on all manner of lunch carrying paraphernalia. Yes, it was the symbol of the Native American Chief, but this figure had long been appropriated by boys like myself playing Cowboys and Indians in the cul de sacs across the country. No matter how contextually deprived, the American Indian Chief was someone seen on an American mural alongside the pilgrims, founding fathers, and Davy Crockett. It made perfect sense that I rooted for a team with this symbol.

The fly in my superfan ointment occurred in 2013 when NFL journalist Peter King2 stated “It’s a name you won’t see me use anymore” because he didn’t want to add to the offense being vocalized by what seemed to be a minority of Native American tribes petitioning to “Change the Name”.

Some boys had Star Wars figurines, I had QB Mark Rypien and WR Ricky Sanders from the ’91 Redskins.

It wasn’t long before several members of the journalistic elite, former players and even referees all came out of the woodwork in protest. Those in the media that did not voice objection began sidestepping the issue altogether, referring to the “Washington Professional Football Team”.

In June 2014, the U.S. Patent office joined in and canceled the teams trademark, ruling the name “disparaging”. While this move didn’t “fix the glitch”, it helped me realize that unless I wanted to separate myself from the rest of society and live within the walls of FedEx Field, I would have to face the music and give serious consideration that one of the defining symbols of my childhood, adulthood, life has been forever tarnished.

Question everything.

I began asking myself a lot of questions…

Can a word be racist if there is no intent of harm or derision?
What ownership do any of us have over our cultural artifacts?
Is this what being racist feels like?
Can once offensive words be totally re-appropriated for good?

Even if I could answer these questions, I realized I may be blinded by bias. So, I sought the input of the most prominent national Native American representatives. The National Congress of American Indians, or NCAI, who as it turns out, is adamantly pushing for the removal of all 2,128 mascots currently being used by teams in all levels of sport in America. While total abolition is in their sights, their ire is heavily directed towards the Washington Redskins.

The name does have it’s defenders. Most coming from the team, it’s alumni, and fans who have created their own campaigns and videos to save the name.

I think most fans would describe the last year as a period of limbo as we wait for the decision to be made for us. Holding on to the hope that the name will be allowed to exist, while at the same time going through our own version of the five stage grieving process3 .

Sports

I have often wondered… why now? What has finally tipped the scales on the 82 year old moniker. How many Native Americans can even remember when the name was actually used outside of a sports mascot or a John Wayne film? Could it be that it’s not the opinion of the name, Redskin, that’s changed, but rather the public of opinion of “sport” as a whole?

Sports journalists, whose employment is guaranteed by our willingness to continue living inside of the American sports bubble, are doing an excellent job of bursting it. Under the microscope of 24 hour sports coverage, the 21st century has been characterized by a de-mythologizing of our American sports heroes. For the NFL in particular, a typical sports month might include any number of off the field exposés on greed, drugs, domestic abuse, and violence in addition to the growing awareness of the inevitable chronic, if not fatal, injuries resulted from years of playing.

Not that this has affected viewing numbers in any way, but the ideals that American sports once represent like hard work, exceptional-ism, and regional pride have proven to be a facade. We know too much. What’s left is an absurd fancy no longer worth representing anything of much value, let alone an entire people group.

Ummm, okay. What now?

The name is offensive to many Native Americans and it’s being met with a healthy dose of ignorance and grandstanding. Perhaps that just makes it American – A product of a country that has enjoyed 250 years of privilege to the detriment of entire people groups. Perhaps we’re at a place in society where the artifacts from this history need  to be reconciled in order to  move forward. If addressing the name of one of the most profitable franchises in the most popular sport is a step towards healing, then it’s a necessary step. I don’t know if removing evidence of the past is the answer, but I also don’t think it’s my place, as one of the privileged, to make that call.

Any chance at keeping it?

In the “I don’t want it to change/absolute best case scenario” fantasyland of my imagination it would be the decision of actual Native Americans. Maybe a voting process where all tribes are represented and we settle it once and for all? Better yet, (let me dream) what if owner Dan Snyder gave Native Americans partial ownership of the team to the NCIA or a comparable association. These co-owners could decide on the name and be actual representatives for Native Americans in the NFL.

While we’re in the land of make believe, what if the thousands of empty seats in FedEx field during games were put to good use? Create a Tribe section where a designated Tribe is honored at every home game with excellent seats and space given to be acknowledged and cheered over the loudspeaker during the game.

This will be over soon.

In reality, I think the name will change as soon as it stops making fiscal sense for the shield and it’s 32 owners. As public opinion increasingly stands in opposition to the franchise, fans will eventually turn. When a new stadium needs financed, fans stop buying Redskins labeled merchandise, or cardboard pizza and lousy beer sponsors pull dollars, then the name will swiftly change.

In the meantime, I do fear my allegiance is beyond redemption. I will likely root for the Washington Redskins the rest of their very numbered days. When the name, logo, and jerseys change, I will take that as my ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card’. Not that there won’t be tears… there might. I will remember my childhood memories and the great Washington Redskins of times past with fondness, but they will be just that, remembrances.

Perhaps the greatest revelation in my year of treading water is that I’ve allowed my mind to envision Sundays free from the three hours of anxiety ridden allegiance to a team that affects my day of rest, social life, and overall well being for four months out of the year. Yes, I’m beginning to accept life without the Washington Redskins. Not really, but here we go.

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