Picture a buck-toothed 5th-grader with a crew cut and Husky-sized pants. It’s winter 1973 and he’s on his way to school in Richmond, VA. That’s a burgundy and gold jacket he’s wearing. If you look close, you’ll see that those pants are held up by a belt with a shiny Washington Redskins helmet-shaped buckle. The white notebook he’s carrying has a rendering of that same helmet on the front. If you look inside, on page after page Redskins helmets are painstakingly (and crudely) sketched in #2 pencil at the top and around the edges. If you’d asked him the time, he’d have looked at the Redskins watch on his wrist. At home was his most prized possession – an autographed black-and-white 8×10 of Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer.
And if it was Sunday and he was on the way to church, he’d have on his burgundy Redskins clip-on tie pinned to his chest with his Redskins tie tack.
That kid, of course, is me. I’ve been a Redskins fan longer than I’ve been about anything but a Simpson. January of 1973 was magical. The ‘Skins finished off their 11-3 season with a trip to the Super Bowl where they suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Miami Dolphins.
The next summer my family would move to Jacksonville, Florida. I was sort of concerned about leaving my friends behind – but devastated to think I wouldn’t be able to watch my team on fall Sundays. To my joy and exaltation we found that the CBS station in Jacksonville showed Redskins games.
You see, long-time Redskins owner George Preston Marshall had worked diligently to make his franchise the South’s team. So the Redskins television network extended down through the Carolinas and Georgia into Jacksonville.
One of Marshall’s strategies for southern domination was to keep the team colors, as Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich famously wrote, “Burgundy, Gold, and Caucasian.” The Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate (in 1961), and only because of pressure by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. (Another famous Povich line – “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”)
By the time I became a fan this was just painful history. The Redskins I knew were an integrated team that would become the to win the Super Bowl with an African-American quarterback. (It is not true that a reporter asked Doug Williams before that Super Bowl, “How long have you been a black quarterback?)
As I grew up and moved from place to place, rooting for the Redskins was a constant in my life. Honestly, one of the reasons I ended up in Maryland is because I wanted to read the Washington Post each day not just for its excellent coverage of world events, but because it extensively covered the Redskins year-round.
I have traveled to five different NFL cities to cheer on the ‘Skins, and I was on the Season Ticket Waiting list for years before I finally got the letter saying I could buy home tickets. (Unfortunately, in the meantime I had taken up a vocation that required me to be busy on Sundays, so I had to decline the invitation.)
On recent fall Sunday afternoons, I have donned my Chris Cooley and then RGIII official jerseys to watch every game on television, sometimes on TIVO if I can’t see them live. I know every word to “Hail to the Redskins,” and have sung it after touchdowns even if I was by myself.
As I sit writing this in my church office, I can see the vintage Redskins cap on the shelf above my desk and the Redskins Santa that permanently sits on my window sill. In my home office is more burgundy and gold paraphernalia.
But I won’t be buying any more. There will be no more Redskins gear for me.
“And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” (Matthew 7:3, NLT)
I am so good at pointing out insensitivity and barriers to inclusiveness in others. I’ve written blog posts that called out racism, sexism, and gay-bashing. It is easy – and oh so satisfying – to point out where others fall short.
“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NLT)
The Golden Rule does not require sympathy. Jesus commands us to practice empathy, to walk in the shoes of another; to exalt with our neighbor in their joys, and to weep with them in their sorrow. That is difficult, and it is much easier to rationalize doing what we want to do even when it causes someone else sorrow.
The Washington football team name is causing some of my neighbors sorrow. For too long I have excused my insensitivity – “It really honors Native Americans,” or, “Not all Native Americans are offended,” or, worst of all, “I have a right to root for who I want to and the the team has a right to use whatever name they want.”
But Jesus calls us to give more consideration to our neighbor’s plight than to our rights.
If my neighbor is offended, then I need to take a look at what I am doing. I am called to compare my conduct and decisions to that of Jesus Christ . . . Do I really think Jesus would be singing “Hail to the Redskins” if he were around today knowing that it hurts some of his children?
If we hold on to traditions and attitudes that offend, then it ultimately damages our witness to the only truly offensive thing that we are supposed to hold on to – the Cross. (In his epistles, Paul writes about how the cross is offensive to the world because of the whole idea of an innocent man being put to death for the sins of the world.)
So, I have decided not to support the Washington football team with any more of my money – through team merchandise or tickets – until the name is changed. I will publicly, beginning with this blog, let folks know how I feel about the team name. I will try not to use that name in writing or in speech. It is very unlikely to change anything the Washington team does, but it is what I need to do to live congruently with what I believe and teach.
Some will appeal to “tradition” as a reason for keeping the name; when that “tradition” includes a legacy of segregation and a clearly racist former owner – who named the team! – those appeals ring hollow.
While I was driving yesterday, I was listening to a sports talk program out of DC. Former Washington football players Brian Mitchell and Doc Walker were talking about the name. Even though they were speaking about the team they loved on the radio station owned by Daniel Snyder, the current team owner, they both spoke in favor changing the name. “I know what it feels like to be discounted and dismissed,” Doc Walker said (both Mitchell and Walker are African Americans). He said his change of heart came when he met a Native American on an airplane and asked him what he thought of the name. Hearing that man’s offense changed Doc Walker’s mind.
For me, it hasn’t been one event or one conversation, but rather a gradual feeling of conviction that I needed to be consistent in my walk of faith. Some will blow this off as “Political Correctness” – I’m not even sure what that means, but screaming “political correctness” seems to be a convenient means of dismissing the consideration of others’ feelings when it would impinge on our “rights.”
This is simply one way for me to live that Golden Rule I am so good at preaching to others; one way to deal with that log in my eye rather than the specks in the eyes of others.
If you missed the powerful commercial funded by Native Americans that aired during the NBA Playoffs, you should watch it here.