Football on Thanksgiving is an American tradition almost as old as the holiday itself. Though the actual event from which we derive Thanksgiving occurred in 1621, when members of the Wampanoag Tribe celebrated a successful harvest with Plymouth settlers, it wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln that the holiday was made official in 1863. Yale and Princeton played the first Thanksgiving football game in 1876 and the NFL’s long history of turkey-day football began with the league’s inception in 1920.
The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys have hosted Thanksgiving day football games since 1934 and 1966 respectively. They were joined this year by the Washington Redskins, who eked out a 20–10 win over the hapless New York Giants in one of the ugliest football games of the year. Regardless of the quality of the football played, ceding the national stage to the Washington Redskins sends a message to the country that the NFL is tolerant of intolerance.
Campaigns to change the name of the Washington Redskins have been around for half a century and every decade or so another dubious survey blindly tosses a dart at Native American indifference and levels of offense. One survey reports that 90 percent of Native Americans are not offended by it. So why change the name? For one, it was intended to be offensive. Lyrics such as “Scalp ‘um, swamp ‘um … Braves on the warpath / Fight for old D.C.” are particularly choice segments from the team’s fight song.
It is possible that the phrase redskin has lost some power since its origins, but the derogatory name was the brainchild of the Redskins’ notoriously racist founder George Preston Marshall. This name is from the man who once said, “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites,” and refused to roster a black player until the federal government threatened to reclaim the Washington stadium.
So what is holding up the name change? Native American activist groups have failed to convince their constituents that this should be a priority, and their bid to have the team’s federal trademark protections stalled this past June when the Supreme Court of the United States struck down an anti-disparagement clause in trademark law, ruling that restrictions on disparaging terms or logos violates First Amendment free speech protections.
The Washington Redskins’ team name is not changing anytime soon, as team owner Dan Snyder repeatedly emphasizes his unwillingness to compromise. If we are stuck with the Redskins for the foreseeable future, then the least the NFL could do is not force this distasteful and disgraceful slur onto a national audience on Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is the one day ostensibly intended to recognize a kernel of peace and understanding between settler and native — an acknowledgement of mutual humanity. The Detroit Lions represent America’s manufacturing legacy, the industriousness that turned this nation into a superpower. The Dallas Cowboys, for all their flaws, are still America’s Team. The New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Chargers, the Thanksgiving Day visiting teams, each boast a unique character and spirit. In contrast, the Redskins are a weekly reminder that America fights progress with clenched fists and faces red with anger. A reminder wholly unwelcome on Thanksgiving.