The Content Strategist

Redskins Facts: A Content Strategy Gone Horribly Wrong

When the Washington Redskins kicked off their first season under their new name in 1933, four players, along with head coach William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, proudly called themselves Native Americans. Those players were being honored by the team owner, George Preston Marshall: The name stands for “strength, courage, and respect,” fitting for a respected football institution.

Or at least that’s what RedskinsFacts.com, sponsored by the Redskins Alumni group, would have you believe—on their new website, in their primetime television ad, and on their social media pages.

It’s a content blitz, a full-blown publicity campaign, hitting the content hard from all angles and trying to spread the good word about why the Washington Redskins name and logo should be held close and supported.

You can see how the Redskins Alumni association was trying to use content to sway public opinion in their favor, but unfortunately, the site is rife with offensive statements, and many of the “facts” are far from the truth. As as result, it’s a case study in content that’s counterproductive and likely to do more harm than good.

The argument presented on Redskins Facts is that, as “one of the best-known and best-loved franchises in the National Football League for 81 years,” the team’s name “epitomizes all the noble qualities we admire about Native Americans—the same intangibles we expect from Washington’s gridiron heroes on game day. Honor. Loyalty. Unity. Respect. Courage. And more.”

It also cites a 2005 anthropological survey by Smithsonian historian Ives Goddard, arguing that “redskins” as a term was, in fact, created by Native Americans in 1769, and was used by them in negotiations with Europeans. Prominent figures like Sitting Bull and Tecumseh referred to themselves as “red men” or “redskins,” and the logo—designed in 1971—was created in consultation with Native American leaders. “We’re simply interested in presenting historical evidence to fair-minded opinion leaders on both sides of the issue so ongoing discussions can be constructive,” the website says.

This position is misleading at best and unquestionably ill-advised.

To begin with, “redskins” is a racial slur no matter which way you spin it. As NPR’s Code Switch blog reported last year, the use of the word switched from being a “benign” term of identification to a derogatory insult in the early 1900s. As in this 1932 Tom and Jerry cartoon, “Redskin Blues,” Native Americans were popularly displayed as brutal savages. That became the legacy of “redskins” that the Washington team entered, just one year later, by claiming an ethnic group as their mascot.

Groups have been calling on the team to change its name for decades. They’ve sued, over and over again, and this July, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelled a handful of trademark registrations by the team, effectively taking away legal protection of the name because disparaging terms are not allowed to be trademarked, as Vox reported.

Two of those groups, the Oneida Indian Nation and the National Congress of American Indians, released a list checking up on some of the “historical evidence” presented on Redskins Facts and added some facts of their own.

One major fact contradicts owner Dan Snyder’s claim that the name Redskins honors Native Americans. As The Washington Post reported in May, Marshall, the team’s original owner, was an infamous segregationist who was the last in the NFL to integrate his team, and flat-out told the AP in 1933: “The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as many suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins.”

He only selected the name Redskins so that he could continue to use a Native American mascot without being confused with the Boston Braves. This has been known for months, and yet, the Redskins Facts—following the lead of Redskins owner Dan Snyder—continues to insist that the name was chosen to honor Native Americans.

It’s a losing battle, and over the past several months, waves of journalists, media organizations, and major publications came out with declarations that they would no longer use the name in their reporting, including the San Francisco Chronicle, The New Republic, Slate, Grantland’s Bill Simmons, and others. NPR’s Scott Simon, for one, went with “the Washington football club whose team name I refuse to utter.” Even the Senate Democrats threw their weight behind the effort for a name change.

So why are some fans sticking to their guns on this issue? Well, as Redskins Facts—captained by a cohort of former players—declares, “We believe that the team’s name and logo represent the very best of the noble qualities exemplified by Native Americans.” Fans who resist the change argue that the name is simply not a slur; team owner Daniel Snyder even founded the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation to benefit Native Americans to prove he is a friend to the very people he offends, a ludicrous move that Jon Stewart famously lampooned in June.

This is likely a losing battle that no content could save. No matter their charity work, or the fact that a majority of people who support the current name, the name is irreparably bound up in a history of oppression, stereotyping, and violence—and playing football with an ethnic group as a flag of power brings all that to the surface. The use of “redskins,” according to clinical psychologist Michael Friedman, is detrimental to self-esteem, community support, and mood among Native Americans, NPR reported.

“If someone who is non-Native American sees a stereotypical image of a Native American mascot, their association with the Native American community also gets worse,” Friedman said, noting that the Redskins logo and mascot is nothing if not stereotypical.

Regardless, Redskins Facts has done its best to saturate the media market with original and aggregated videos of interviews with Native Americans, arguing about both the benevolence of the team itself and that the name is, well, just not a big deal. “Many Native Americans do not find the Redskins name offensive, and instead are more concerned with other issues facing their community,” a video caption declares.

But considering the outrage from Native American groups throughout this year, it’s clear that many people do find the name offensive, and that’s a fact that the Redskins Alumni Group—or any organization who finds themselves in a similar position—cannot spin.