Should Washington’s Professional Football Team Change Its Name?

Rev. Timothy Tutt, Senior Minister
Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ
February 2, 2014
The "Should Washington's Professional Football Team Change Its Name?"
Psalm 23, Hebrews 2:10-12

 Over the years, I have officiated at dozens – maybe 150 or 200 – funerals and memorial services. I’ve never stopped to count. At almost every funeral or memorial service in which I have taken part, the Twenty-Third Psalm has been part of the occasion. Either a family member has requested it, or, in some cases, the deceased left directions asking for that, or I have suggested that we read Psalm 23.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  God leads me beside still water.  God restores my soul.”   Something in those words offers a power that speaks to us in times of grief and loss. 

Over the next few weeks, we will examine the Twenty-Third Psalm in worship.  The choir will sing various arrangements.  We will take the psalm line by line to explore some questions of modern life.  Today, we being with the first phrase, “The Lord is my shepherd…”[i]

The Bible is full of images and names for God.  God as Warrior, God as Judge, God as Creator.  But there’s something about the image of God as Shepherd that speaks to us.  God cares for us, tends us, protects us, feeds us.  Even though very few of us are farmers or ranchers anymore, something about that pastoral image wraps us in a feeling of concern.   “God is my shepherd…”

There are other helpful professions, of course.  A dentist helps us fight gum disease, but, “God is my dentist,” doesn’t quite work for us.”  Help with our taxes may be nice, but, “God is my accountant,” falls short somehow.  Even to say, “God is my homeroom teacher,” doesn’t resonate quite like this psalm does.  “The Lord is my shepherd…”

All of that to say, it matters what we call God.  It matters how we refer to God.  The words we use make a difference in how we understand God.  “The Lord is my shepherd…”

By that same token, it matters what we call each other.  As common sheep of God’s fold, it matters what we call each other.  The scripture we read from the Book of Hebrews says we are sisters and brothers of Christ. As siblings, it matters how we refer to each other.  Words matter.

With that in mind, I want to explore a question with you this morning, “Should Washington’s professional football team change its name?”

Over the past few years there have been conversations, there have been suggestions that Washington’s NFL team should change its name.  There are people who find the team’s name and mascot to be degrading and insulting.  Many people have weighed in—sportscasters, journalists, league officials, politicians.  This morning – on Super Bowl Sunday – I would like for us to think theologically for a bit about that issue.

Let me begin with some disclaimers or caveats…

First, a confession… I grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan in the days of Tom Landry as coach and Roger Staubach as quarterback. But those days are long gone, as are my Cowboys loyalties. I suppose I’m a free agent as a fan.  You can be assured that I do not enter this sermon with any biased loyalties.

Second, I waited to preach this sermon until Washington had ended their regular season.  I didn’t want my sermon to distract them and cause them to lose. They seem to take care of that on their own.

Third, I’ve received more emails and comments in advance of this sermon than I’ve ever received before any sermon. I wonder what that says about us.

Fourth, there are other issues that we should discuss about football – violence, injury and big business among them.  Let’s save those for another day.

Fifth, as I’ve talked about this issue, some have said, “Is this issue that big a deal?  Aren’t there other issues that deserve our attention?”  To that I say, I suppose there are as many problems in the world as there are grains of sand on the shore of the sea.  Syrian refugees, unrest in Ukraine and the Central African Republic, gun violence right here in this country, hunger right here in DC.  There are enough problems – big and small – to go around.  I also think there are enough people, with different gifts and concerns that we can attend to them all.

Sixth, as a preacher I see a sermon as a conversation. I want to hear what you have to say, so after worship, grab a cup of coffee and meet me in the parlor for a forum to explore this further.

So, with all of that as introduction, let’s focus on the question, Should Washington’s professional football team change their name?

Some geography and some history…  The Washington football team actually plays in Landover, Maryland, and there offices are in Ashburn, Virginia, but they were born in Massachusetts in 1932 as the Boston Braves.  In 1933, they changed names to what some now refer to as the “R” word.  It’s unclear exactly why they changed their name.  But in 1937, the team moved to Washington, bringing their name with them.

George Preston Marshall, the team’s owner in the 30s, did not invent a new word when he renamed his team.  The idea of Native Americans having red skin tones dates back to the mid 1700s.  We must admit that our descriptions for skin colors are very inaccurate. Native Americans do not have red skin.  African-Americans do not have black skin. Asian Americans do not have yellow skin. Caucasian Americans do not have white skin.  Any attempt to classify any person or any group of people by skin color falls far short of the nuances that a full human requires.

Somehow or another, though, this nickname stuck, both for Native Americans and for the Washington football team.  Some historians say that at first, back in the 1700s, the “R” word was a positive or a neutral phrase.  However, historians have done research showing that from the mid-1800s to the mid-1930s, the “R” word was used in print in a derogatory way significantly more times than it was used in a positive way.  Since 1898, dictionaries have been saying that the “R” word is contemptuous or offensive.  So perhaps the word began as neutral phrase in 1769; it gained weight as a negative phrase; and nearly universally considered offensive.

I said earlier, “Words matter.”  I am quoting Deval Patrick, the Governor of Massachusetts there, by the way; that was his phrase first, “Words matter.”  Words also change.  For example, in 1932, when the Washington football team was born, the word “gay” was an adjective meaning happy.  By the middle of the 1900s, it had become an adjective describing homosexual males.  Now, the word “gay” can be an adjective or a noun.  So, words change.  The word “awful” used to mean wonderful, impressive, as in full of awe.  But the meaning changed and the word “awful” now means bad, even terrible.  Words change.

When asked about Washington’s mascot and name, former owner, the late Jack Kent Cooke, said, “I admire the…name.  I think it stands for bravery, courage, and a stalwart spirit and I see no reason why we shouldn't continue to use it."   The current owner of the team, Daniel Snyder, has said the “R” word is “a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect -- the same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the original Americans.”

The problem there is that all Native Americans do not agree with that.  Native Americans do not agree that the term is used as one of honor and respect.  And therein lies the trouble.  One group of people doesn’t get to decide what name another person uses.

One of my childhood friends was Julie from the time we were born through the 5th grade.  Then in Middle School, she decided to go by her middle name, Elizabeth. She decided she was an Elizabeth, not a Julie.  It took us about a week to make that change that.  And for the past 35 years, she has been Elizabeth.

African-Americans as a group, have made similar changes.  From Negro to black to African-American, all respectable words each in turn.  As African-Americans’ self-understanding has changed, African-American self-designation has changed as well.  African-Americans have the right to say, “You can’t call me words that we find demeaning and racist.”  The same goes for Native Americans.  It matters what we call ourselves, and it matters what we call each other.

Let’s pretend for a minute… Imagine you go off to college.  You meet your college roommate for the first time.  Your roommate says, “Hi. My name is Kelly, and I play lacrosse.” 

And you say, “I have a friend who looks just like you, and my friend plays lacrosse too.  But that friend isn’t very smart, so I’m going to call you ‘Dummie.’”

Your new roommate might say, “Well, I don’t want you to call me ‘Dummie.’ I want you to call me Kelly.” 

“Oh don’t fuss about that,” you say, “My dumb friend is a superb athlete.  So I’m giving you that name as a badge of honor.  By calling you ‘Dummie,’ I’m saying that you are fast and strong and a great lacrosse player.” 

“But I don’t want to be called ‘Dummie.’” 

“But it’s a compliment,” you say.

Except it really isn’t a compliment to call someone a name they don’t want to be called.  It’s actually just rude.  It is disrespectful.

One of the aspects of this discussion has been that not all Native Americans agree that the “R” word is derogatory.  That is factual.  There is not uniform agreement. 

Let’s pretend again… Let’s say you’re an artist and you have ten friends named Shannon.  And you paint a picture of a very ugly, naked person who is roller skating.  And you show this painting of a very ugly naked person roller skating to your friends ten named Shannon and you say, “Well, I’m either going to call my painting “Shannon,” or I’m going to call it, “Ugly, Naked Person Roller Skating.” 

And seven of your friends named Shannon, say, “Okay, call it ‘Shannon.’” 

And the other three say, “We don’t want you to name your painting ‘Shannon’.  We’re kind of insulted.” 

For the sake of three of your friends, it would make sense to entitle your painting, “Ugly Person Roller Skating.”   There are no hard feelings that way.

Another consideration in this discussion has been the grand old booger bear of tradition… “We’ve never done it that way before.”  (Church folk would never say that, right? But sports fans would.)  “That football team has always been called that.”  Well, they haven’t.  As I said, the name has only been around since 1933.  That’s a long time, but that’s not forever.  The name was changed in 1933. It can be changed again. 

Again, I would point out that I want us to think about this theologically this morning.  And the concept of change, of transformation, of new life, is a primary Christian theological understanding.  “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth forth,” John Robinson preached to our ancestors as they board the Mayflower.  “God is still speaking,” the United Church of Christ says today.   God’s call on our lives is ever-unfolding.  We must never be trapped by tradition.  Instead, we should be free to change as God gives us light to see new paths.

Many sports teams have changed their name.  In Tyler, Texas, which is not far from my hometown, a new high school was built in 1958.  The school was named for Robert E. Lee.  Their mascot was the Rebels.  Their cheerleaders waved Confederate battle flags.  Over time, they quit using the Confederate flag, and they changed their mascot from the Rebels to the Red Raiders.  Some people protested the name change.  But it’s tradition, people said.  But it’s tradition that is offensive and racist, others said.  They changed.  The school survived.  Their teams still win games.  Students there still learn trigonometry and biology.  History is full of change.  And change is sometimes difficult.  And the world goes on.

When we think the name of the Washington football team, we need to think not in terms of loyalties or traditions, or even victories or dollars, we really need to think in terms of kindness.  If a group of people are saying, “That name offends me,” the name should be changed out of simple human kindness. If we are sisters and brothers, as this scripture says, if we are children of God, we need to think of how our sisters and brothers hear our words.  As I said, other people have weighed in on this name change from other perspectives. Today I want us to think about this theologically, to think about this as Christians.  Kindness, respect, transformation.  Those are theological concepts.  How do they shape our language, our words? 

Let me make one final factual observation, one historical observation, then I want to make a personal observation...

Some more facts… There are 32 NFL teams.  Of those teams, 14 of them are named for animals or birds, like the Rams or the Ravens.  Eleven teams of them are named after regional groups or characteristics, like the Steelers or the 49ers.  Five teams are named for mythical beings such as Giants or Titans.  With the possible exception of the Kansas City Chiefs, Washington is the only team whose name is questioned as being racist and hurtful.  Wouldn’t changing the name be the graceful thing to do?

Now a final, personal take on this… I said that I was approaching this sermon from a neutral position as a football fan.  And that is true.  And I haven’t even told you if I want the Seahawks or the Broncos to win today.  But I am not neutral on the name of Washington’s football team.  As a Christian, the theological concepts of kindness, respect, transformation and grace speak to me.  And there is a personal consideration…

My wife and my children are card-carrying members of the Cherokee Nation. They are fully, legally, biologically Native Americans.  Amy’s great-great-great grandmother, on her mother’s side, was named Kahungsta Girty.  Amy’s great-great-great grandfather was named Snake Girty.  In 1838, Snake and Kahugunsta Girty, my wife’s great-great-great grandparents, were forcibly removed from the farm they owned in Georgia.  In the winter of 1838, seven thousand soldiers rounded up 13,000 Cherokee Indians in Georgia and Alabama and Tennessee, and they forced them to walk through Tennessee, across Kentucky.  When they crossed the Ohio River, they required these Cherokee Indians to pay exorbitant rates for their own ferry crossing.  The ancestors of my children were then forced to march through the ice and snow of Illinois and Missouri into Oklahoma.  Along the way, 4000 people died.  All because they were here first.  Because they were Native Americans.  Because someone thought they were not as important as other people.

Words matter.  It matters what we call people.  Because words and names and terms shape how we think of others. How we think of others determines how we treat them.

If we refer to people or people groups by terms that are not true or hurtful or racist, if we call people names that they do not want to be called, we are not treating them with kindness and respect.

And we are all deserving of kindness and respect.  Because God is our shepherd.  God loves us and cares for us and wants us to be well-tended and nurtured.  God is our shepherd.  To quote another psalm, “We are the sheep of God’s field, God made us.”  And God treats us with a faithfulness that extends to all generations, all people.  

God loves us with a never-ending love.  Let us love one another. 

Let us offer one another, on word and in deed, kindness, respect, grace.

Let us love one another.  Even when it comes to football.  Amen.

[i] Psalm 23 and the Hebrews scripture are not from the suggested Lectionary readings.