Youth leagues also wrestling with controversial Redskins nickname
When Gabriel Franklin’s mother, Kris, told him he might not be happy with the name of the flag football team to which he’d been assigned, the 12-year-old Jets fan immediately jumped to the worst conclusion.
“I was like, really … is it the Patriots?” Gabriel recalled.
When Kris said no, he tried to think of a team name that could be even worse than his least favorite NFL team.
“Is it the Washington franchise?” Gabriel finally asked.
“I couldn’t really grasp it,” Gabriel said. “It was just so surreal to me.”
The NFL isn’t the only one dealing with the controversy surrounding the Redskins nickname. Across the country, kids like Gabriel find themselves facing the challenge of playing for a team they see as having an offensive team name. Some players are rallying against the moniker, while other youth teams, similar to the franchise in Washington, simply have no interest in changing their name.
After discussing the situation with Gabriel, his parents, Kris Franklin and Sarah Chinn, contacted the Saint Francis Xavier Youth Sports Brooklyn league to ask them to change the name.
When that did not immediately lead to a name change, they spoke to a friend, who set up an interview with a news organization. Shortly after the reporter called the league for a comment, Gabriel said, the team name was changed to the Bears.
The Saint Francis Xavier Youth Sports league is affiliated with the NFL FLAG football organization, which provides the jerseys for the teams. The jerseys have the team name and logo on them.
One of the league organizers, Stanley Lehman, said he is “aware of what’s going on in the world,” and knew the name was “a little controversial” when it was picked. Lehman said he had a discussion with the coach who had picked the name, but they came to the conclusion that the Redskins were a popular NFL team, and they decided to go with it.
“I wanted that name changed,” Gabriel said. “I wasn’t very comfortable with it.”
Gabriel said because there are only 12 teams in the league, he didn't understand why the name was even an option.
“Redskins is a derogatory and horrible name,” Gabriel said. “It’s a word that we should never utter and we’re using it.”
In the Oxford dictionary, the word “redskin” is defined as an offensive or dated term for an American Indian. Under usage, the passage reads, “In time … redskin lost its neutral, accurate descriptive sense and became a term of disparagement.”
If the league refused to change it, Gabriel said, he planned to put Duct Tape over the logo and team name.
Ultimately, the league made the switch, they said, to avoid the distraction.
“Our main focus is really on the kids playing, and this whole team name is an unwelcome diversion from that,” Lehman said. “We dealt with it as swiftly as possible with the full cooperation of the coach.”
The media attention led to members of the Oneida Indian Nation hearing Gabriel’s story. The group, who runs the website ChangeTheMascot.org, has made it their mission to encourage the Washington Redskins to choose a different mascot and nickname.
The Oneida group, who said they were touched by Gabriel’s stance, sent him a letter, thanking him for his actions.
When Gabriel received the letter, his eyes lit up as he showed off the kind words and beautiful feather sent by the group.
“Getting that letter from them was great,” Gabriel said. “It was very validating that I wasn’t being oversensitive about this.”
“You, and your teammate understand our message,” the letter read. “You have chosen to stand with us on the right side of history, and we’re pleased that the Saint Francis Xavier Youth Sports league honored your request. And we couldn’t be prouder.”
The Team Who Changed Their Name
The town of Cooperstown, N.Y. is well known as the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Located less than two miles away is Cooperstown Central High School -- the former home of the Redskins.
In February 2013, students petitioned the school board to change the high school mascot because of its offensive meaning.
The school board hosted public forums to discuss the issue, and eventually voted to change the name in March.
The school mascot is now the Redhawks.
“A couple of the students on their own initiative, without anyone asking them to do anything, decided that it was time for them to change their name. They didn’t want to have a racial slur as a mascot any longer,” Oneida Indian Nation spokesperson Joel Barkin said.
Barkin said the Oneidas were so moved by that gesture and “that sense and show of solidarity and thoughtfulness,” they offered to buy the school’s uniforms as a show of their appreciation. The group presented the Cooperstown Central School District with a check for $10,000.
“It was really at that time that Ray Halbritter, head of the Oneida Indian Nation, decided that we were at a unique moment in time,” Barkin said. “A new, younger generation of people [showed] they have a different understanding, level of commitment, and respect for [the name].
“When you have high school kids that are making this decision on their own, it’s simply unacceptable that a professional franchise is marketing and profiting from a dictionary defined racial slur in 2014.”
The Parent Who Doesn’t Think It’s A Big Deal
Melissa Lohaus’ 11-year-old son, Andrew, plays for a Redskins team as part of the Central Loudoun Youth Football League in Leesburg, Va., which is located approximately an hour from FedEx Field in Landover, Md. Prior to last April, the Washington Redskins held their training camp in nearby Ashburn.
Though Melissa said the issue of the controversial name hasn’t come up among the team because they “are just focused on playing the games,” she admitted the topic has been discussed at home.
“We have talked about it in my household a few times,” Melissa said. “Personally, I think that the name is a part of football history and tradition. I don't believe it is meant to be derogatory. Even their song says, ‘Hail to the Redskins.’
“I think that there are better and more important topics for us to concern ourselves with than the name of the Washington Redskins.”
The Teams Who Want To Keep The Name
The Washington D.C. area is not the only place where youth teams are using the Redskins name.
There’s the Sarasota Ringling Redskins in Florida, the Southwest Redskins in Texas, the Whittier Redskins in California, the South Cherokee Redskins in Georgia, and the Braxton County Redskins in West Virginia, to name a few.
For some, the decision to keep the name comes from the history of the organization.
“We have been Redskins for over 40 years,” Whittier Redskins president Delfina Hernandez said in an email. “At this time we do not plan on changing our name. We just want to concentrate on our program.”
Multiple requests to talk to the other teams who have kept the nickname were not answered.
“We are very understanding of that position,” Barkin said. “We understand that people don’t mean to cause harm, and that it’s not their intent. They just weren’t knowledgeable. They didn’t know there was a group of people that was offended by the use of this name.
“But that’s part of what our effort has been. To educate them.”
Though this situation caught Gabriel and his parents by surprise, it had come up in a conversation before.
After one of Gabriel’s games last season, he and Kris were walking around the fields, when he spotted one of the league’s teams playing with Redskins jerseys on.
“I said to Kris, ‘Imagine if I was on that team,” Gabriel said. “‘What would we have to do?’ And she was like, ‘That would be a very bad scenario. I doubt we’re going to be on the Redskins.’”
When Gabriel was put in that position, he did what others had not done, and helped to change the team name.
“To see protest work is a reminder that sometimes it does [work],” Kris said. “It doesn’t always. But sometimes it does. Sometimes people listen to other people’s point of view and change what they do. And that’s a very nice thing for our kids to see.”
Sarah added: “That to me is the most valuable lesson out of all of this. Things will never change if you do nothing. They might not change if you do something, but you might as well try to do something, because you might make them change.”