Native Americans, the NFL, and Christian Priority

On Wednesday the US Trademark and Patent Office cancelled six registered trademarks belonging to the NFL’s Washington Redskins. The office issued a ruling in favor of plaintiff Amanda Blackhorse, who argued that the name of the franchise was derogatory towards Native Americans.

This is the first significant legal action in the controversy over Daniel Snyder’s NFL franchise, the third most profitable NFL team in America. The cultural conversation about the team’s name has been heating up in the last couple years. As the Chicago Tribune noted, while many other sports teams in the country (professional or otherwise) have Native American names, public discussion about the potential for racism has focused mainly on the Redskins.

As a Christian who is also an NFL fan, I find myself being pulled in opposite directions on this issue. On one hand, I’ve noticed that the majority of the pundits who oppose the name tend to be on the opposite end from me on a lot of other issues. It makes me wonder whether this is just another conservative vs liberal debate; just saying those words gives me an itching need to hold faithfully to whatever is the “conservative” viewpoint.

On the other hand, though I’m not a Native American, I can see how a national team name that degraded my family and heritage would be tremendously hurtful. To see millions of fans celebrate and cheer while wearing logos and names that put me and many others at an arm’s distance would be a reality I would want to change as much as was in my power.

Thinking through this, I can see three main concerns that I have about the controversy. I believe these are things that all Christians need to remember and take into consideration when thinking and talking about this debate:

1) Words, especially names, matter. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a fantasy. Words can be more powerful than the most violent attack or vicious assault. Jesus himself experienced slander from those who opposed his message. At one point, offended that Jesus told them they needed to be freed from sin, the crowds asked Jesus “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” To be a Samaritan in first century Judaism was to be lower than the lowest. Yet we know that Jesus used a Samaritan to teach his followers about being a true neighbor. Jesus did not deal in racial epithets, nor was he apathetic about racial abuse, but was pro active in challenging his culture’s values. We should always be ready to follow our Lord in this.

2) This issue isn’t as simple as the blogosphere might have you believe. Believe it or not, there is support for the name from Native American communities. Rick Reily wrote a fascinating article last year documenting his conversations with some of these individuals. The idea that Dan Snyder is running roughshod over the entire Native American community is simply false.

Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be clear-cut evidence that the term “redskin” has historically been used in a racist way. Slate Magazine, in no way a conservative think tank, recently published evidence that the word developed as a generic identifier. It’s not true that the historical offensiveness of the word has been established beyond all doubt.

Yet Charles Krauthammer is correct when he points out that, because words change meaning over time, the historic usage of a word isn’t that helpful for determining if it is offensive today. Christians have an obligation to think carefully through all issues and to be truth-getters. That means we cannot just glean the major headlines and use current consensus as our guide, but neither does it mean we can deny the reality of those who are affected in negative ways.

3) At the end of the day, it is people, not brands, that matter most. Christians are called to prioritize the Gospel and the good of their neighbor above the preservation of a sports tradition. What does it matter if an NFL team changes its name? As a die-hard football fan, I definitely understand the affection and loyalty given to a franchise (Go Rams!). But shouldn’t Christians lead the way in articulating what is and what is not most important? If a team name becomes something that makes sharing in Gospel joy with others more difficult, what is the eternal value of holding onto it?

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