Scandal? Crisis? Cowboys Vs. Washington Enters New Era

Richie Whitt

FRISCO - The Dallas Cowboys will never again beat the Washington Redskins. As a lifelong fan of America's Team, I couldn’t be happier.

With the official announcement on Monday that Washington’s NFL team is dumping the offensive “Redskins” nickname, one of sports’ longest and most bitter rivalries is also getting a much-needed politically-correct bath. The beauty for the Cowboys is that they dominated the Redskins with a 72-45-2 all-time edge, and sent the derogatory name to its grave with a 47-16 shellacking last Dec. 29.

Justice? The final game played by the “Redskins” was a humiliating 31-point loss to their biggest rival.

Statues toppling. Slurs shamed. Stereotypes muted. Skin color amplified. (And this doesn't even count owner Dan Snyder's name being attached somehow to a "scandalous bombshell'' about the franchise's "toxic culture'' that the Washington Post is supposedly about to publish.) 

In this righteous reckoning of all things “woke” in 2020, now comes sports’ time in the barrel. Not the games. The names.

As America stumbles around for solid footing on the trending topics of equality among race, common decency and the muzzling of offensive anything, sports traditions and nicknames are beginning to melt under the heat of political correctness.

Since the 1960s our sports teams’ names and mascots have prompted protests for being racist, insensitive or just downright crude. But this feels different.

The latest wave of protagonists – fueled by change-agent momentum from the killing of George Floyd – is imploring teams to serve as vehicles for justified cultural change. With disparaging imagery tied to franchises such as the Redskins and Cleveland Indians, there is rising demand for eradicating racially revolting material via soul-searching changes to less offensive monikers and symbols.

The traditionalists remain steadfast in their teams’ “heritage”, claiming this national movement to correct racial wrongdoings amounts to little more than a knee-jerk conjuring of boogeymen that is erroneously breathing life into fears that for years no one has found scary. If fans have to be educated on why they should be offended, the purists say, then they weren’t genuinely, originally offended.

Are we becoming a smarter, more sensitive society? Or merely a softer flock of sheep?

The winner of our national referendum on subtle sports snipes is imminent, as franchise leaders from Washington to Austin mull whether to be better safe than sorry, or remain rigid to their roots.

In DFW, the balancing act between tradition and tasteless can be thorny. Because some of the cases are palm-to-forehead obvious, while others are potentially absurd.

Until 2002, Frisco High School was known as the Fighting Coons. Supposedly christened after a former student’s pet raccoon in the 1920s but, nonetheless, you don’t have to be Rev. Al Sharpton to know “Coons” is an ethnic slur to blacks. These days they’re the new-and-improved Frisco Raccoons. No-brainer.

But what about our Texas Rangers? The iconic, 12-foot bronze statue of a Ranger lawman was recently removed from the lobby of Love Field because of the group’s history of hunting, terrorizing and even lynching minorities across the state. How about the Frisco Rough Riders’ logo featuring Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States whose statue was just removed from the American Museum of Natural History?

As difficult as those are to discern, so too is where we draw our line of intolerance along the slipperiest of slopes.

Are the Dallas Mavericks linked to law-breakin’, gun-slingin’ outlaws of the Old West, or simply Texas’ original herd of unbranded cattle that was found to be owned by a rancher named Samuel Maverick? (Sidebar: Given those two logical choices, why does the team’s logo feature a horse?) Once upon a time, we cheered the Mavs ManiAACs (mental health!) and the Dallas Tornado (killer thunderstorms in the country’s deadliest alley!) And the Dallas Stars (they … well, until Astronomy becomes polarizing, they’re innocent).

In the NFL, Kansas City boasts the Super Bowl champion “Chiefs”. An admission of guilt that the name is offensive, their mascot isn’t an Indian tribe leader but instead an anthropomorphic wolf. Minnesota’s “Vikings” were known marauders who stole land and treasure. Same for Las Vegas’ “Raiders”, and Tampa Bay’s “Buccaneers.” The New York “Jets”, for some, invoke tragic images of 9/11. And don’t get me started on the New Orleans “Saints” and the association to the litany of Catholic church sins against young boys.

You see where this is going and, for various reasons, you might be in a state of perpetual cringe. But look at it this way: “Redskins” is a racial insult that makes millions of people angry. Though I rooted against them for 50 years, I was never once happy that Washington’s football team was called “Redskins.” Therefore, if a name that makes a large group unhappy doesn’t bring me an ounce of genuine joy, why should I be against changing it?

I’ve never been one to take pleasure in simply keeping others from satisfaction.

In the bigger picture, we can all agree there are sports names that undoubtedly should be changed. These mascots existed in America, swear: The Ethiopian Clowns (Negro American League baseball), the Pekin High School Chinks (whose Chicago skating arena was the “Chink Rink” and whose mascot was “Mr. Bamboo”). The Coachella Valley High School Arabs (whose stereotypical bearded Middle Eastern man logo now symbolizes the kinder(?), gentler(?) nickname, “Mighty Arabs”). The Orofino High School Maniacs (whose Idaho campus is a half-mile down the street from a 55-bed psychiatric hospital).

Colleges have long been at the forefront of the cleansing, with Stanford switching from Indian to Cardinal in 1972. In recent years, Dartmouth, Syracuse, Marquette, St. John’s and North Dakota have retired nicknamed associated with Native Americans. The Utah Utes and Florida State Seminoles asked for and received approval from local tribes to keep their mascots.

As they should’ve, the NBA’s Washington Bullets became the Wizards and MLB’s Atlanta Braves dropped their cartoonish dual mascots, “Chief Noc-A-Homa” and “Princess Win-A-Lotta”. (The organization says “Braves” will remain, but the team’s “Tomahawk Chop” chant is being revisited.)

There is, however, inconsistency in our search for insensitivity.

Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays deleted the Devil; NHL’s New Jersey franchise kept it. Approximately 30 Americans per year die while struck by lightning (NHL’s Tampa Bay and NFL’s San Diego Chargers?). Almost 2,000 perished in Hurricane Katrina (College football, Miami and Tulsa?). The Horned Frog paralyzes its prey by shooting blood out of its eyes and, if not fatal, that’s wholly terrifying (TCU?).

While those names could potentially be tinkered with, other seemingly benign traditions are currently in the cause’s crosshairs.

Turns out Southern California’s famed white horse, “Traveler”, is named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s favorite steed. The University of Virginia’s new logo added rippled grips to its crossed swords, which was revealed to emulate “serpentine” walls used to hide the use of slave labor on campus in the early 1800s. And the University of Florida’s “Gator Bait” chant is now banned because, according to historical accounts, white alligator hunters once used black children as lures.

“While I know of no evidence of racism associated with our ‘Gator Bait’ cheer,” Florida president Kent Fuchs said, “there is horrific historic racist imagery associated with the phrase.”

Informed about the controversy, legendary Gators’ football coach Steve Spurrier immediately said, “Let’s get rid of it.”

Even the “Eyes of Texas”, widely recognized as the Longhorns’ school fight song is suddenly under immense scrutiny because of problematic origins. Apparently, the song also has ties to Lee, who was fond of saying “the eyes of the South are upon you.” The lyrics – set to the old folk song, “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” – are in no way a blatantly racist epithet. Nonetheless, since the song was originally performed by Texas white students in blackface as part of a campus minstrel show in the 1900s, there are those students – including black players – petitioning to no longer allow it to be performed at athletic events.

Athletic director Chris Del Conte has agreed to look into the complaints.

“I am always willing to have meaningful conversations regarding any concerns our student-athletes have,” he said. “We will do the same in this situation and look forward to having those discussions.”

(The latest at UT is here.)

Baseball’s Indians are at a similarly uncomfortable juncture. They dropped their “Chief Wahoo” mascot in 2018 and are now – under public pressure – considering changing the name they’ve held since 1915. Their manager, for one, is open to a tweak.

“In the past, I would usually say, ‘I know that we’re never trying to be disrespectful.’ And I still feel that way,” said Terry Francona. “But I don’t think that’s a good enough answer today. I think it’s time to move forward.”

The resolution of the name of Dallas’ NFC East rival is most troubling.

Founded as the Boston Braves by George Preston Marshall, the team changed to “Redskins” in 1933 to avoid confusion with baseball’s Boston Braves. Native American groups, led by the National Congress of American Indians, have consistently pushed the team to change, including a protest before Super Bowl XXVI in 1992 and lawsuits in 1999 and 2009. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office even canceled the team’s trademarks on the name, citing a law that prohibits offensive or disparaging language. Last month, Washington removed Marshall’s name from FedEx Field and his monument from the team’s former home, RFK Stadium. Why? Because it’s well-documented that Marshall opposed integration of the NFL and didn’t sign any black players until 1962 – 16 years after it was legal.

But for years, owner Dan Snyder has vehemently defended his team’s nickname.

“We’ll never change the name,” Snyder told USA Today in 2013. “It’s that simple. NEVER. You can use caps.”

In the last month, however, community outcry to change to a less belittling name intensified. More importantly, sponsors joined the cause.

FedEx, which paid $205 million for the naming rights on the team’s stadium, asked for a name change and said it was prepared to pull its name and funding if the team refused. Giant retailers Nike, Wal-Mart, Target and Dick’s Sporting Goods pulled all “Redskins” merchandise from their inventory. Washington announced it would undergo a “thorough review” of its name “in light of events around our country and feedback from our community.”

Then came Monday’s official news, and that the team is “working on” a new identity. My two cents: The Washington “Americans”, incorporating in the new logo a positive nod toward this land’s original inhabitants.

“It shouldn’t take a huge social movement or pressure from corporate sponsors to do the right thing, but I’m glad it’s happening,” said New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland, chairwoman of the House Native American Caucas. “This change should’ve been made a long time ago.”

Asked if his team should change its name, Washington head coach and Puerto Rican descendant Ron Rivera said, “If we can get it done before the start of the (2020) season, it would be awesome.”

Because they fear pressure and simultaneously see no need for progress, the critics are resistant to any name change.

Tweeted President Donald Trump recently, “They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness, but now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct.”

Look, I don’t want to siphon the character out of sports. The decline isn’t so steep that we’re headed toward every pennant on every kid’s wall – like Richie Cunningham’s in Happy Days – being a generic “STATE” version. Nor do we need to be so safe that every team switches its nickname to the “Humans.” Maybe we simply drop all nicknames and go with cities? Surely just “Dallas” wouldn’t be offensive to anyone … sorry, JFK.

If you squint hard enough and tilt your head just right, you might be able to find fault with every team’s mascot.

The Redskins, however, was painfully obvious. And it's worth noting that as it's been painfully obvious for quite some time, skeptics wonder of there isn't some other motivation for Snyder to finally cave. Could it be that the organization is in need of a public-relations scrubbing due to the soon-to-be-revealed "toxic front-office'' scandal? Sex? Drugs? Blackmail? The rumors swirl. The heads spin.

In 1979 after quarterback Roger Staubach led a 14-point rally in the final two minutes to beat the Redskins and clinch the NFC East, Cowboys’ defensive end Harvey Martin swung open the door to the visitors’ locker room in Texas Stadium and flung in a funeral wreath.

As of Monday, the justified death sentence isn’t on Washington’s playoff chances, but instead its name. ... and maybe its reputation beyond even that.