Jocks like football and nerds like comic books, right? These days, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
With Hollywood blockbusters making comic characters cool and with the growing popularity of fantasy football, the lines are much blurrier now. The hardcore fans, however, are still pretty identifiable on both sides, particularly when a debate arises.
The controversial nature of the Washington Redskins name has been argued for years, though no one at the NFL seemed to be giving it any serious thought until the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decided to cancel protection of the name last week. Many are saying the office overstepped its bounds, that it has no right to decide the morality of using a name that many Native Americans find offensive. I’m not a legal expert, and, frankly, I really don’t like sports, so I truly have no dog in this race. I’m simply a comic book geek, looking at my fellow fans on the other side of aisle, the football enthusiasts, and wondering, “Why is anyone still fighting for this racist name in the first place?”
The No. 1 argument I have heard in support is that the moniker has been established for 82 years, so therefore we must uphold the tradition. Historically, that’s an awful precedent to set, especially when discussing racial issues. White people treating other races like they were subhuman was once tradition in this country, but I’d like to think that we have learned from our mistakes and built a better nation since then – the Constitution allows amendments for a reason.
The lesser arguments boil down to, “Whiny liberals are at it again, trying to sanitize everything with political correctness!” and, “I guess we better rename Cracker Jacks, too, because I find that offensive!” You can drip with anger or sarcasm all you like – white privilege still sounds like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum in the toy store, and it’s about as intellectually valid. Everything in life doesn’t boil down to a black and white, liberal versus conservative viewpoint, and “crackerjack” actually means “exceptional quality,” smartass. What does “redskin” mean other than “that person with different colored skin over there?” The origins of the term are debatable, but its common use as a racial slur for many, many years isn’t. If you would feel comfortable calling a Native American a “redskin” to his or her face, then you’re clearly not the type of person that can be reasoned with.
To be fair, younger football fans don’t seem to care as much about keeping the name, as they’re not as attached to it as the hardcore devotees are. What’s happening here is progress slowly creeping in on another “sacred” American institution, one that can’t even seem to handle its players coming out as gay in the 21st century – one that easily forgives animal abusers and sexual offenders and thinks it’s OK for children to look up to such men while shunning players who just want to live their lives openly. If you believe that the stereotype of the big dumb bully isn’t an accurate way to describe footballs fans, then it may be time for the NFL to stop perpetuating it, particularly by ceasing the use of racial slurs in a sport that becomes more ethnically diverse every day.
As a guy who typically writes about comic books, movies, and other geeky entertainment, you may be wondering why I would delve into this topic in my column in the first place. It’s because, as a different kind of fan, I have a very different perspective on race – we talk about our issues out in the open nowadays, rather than burying them in ritual and tradition.
Just last weekend, I attended Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con, where panels included “Horrible, Horrible, Horrible Stereotypes in Comic Books” – yes, that was the actual name of the panel. Comics haven’t always been on the right side of history, utilizing racial stereotypes as villains and subjugating women as helpless eye candy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about or learn from those mistakes. Saying, “It was that time,” just isn’t enough, so we dedicate books and websites to these topics, discussing morality in stories that are full of beliefs, both good and bad. It’s an educational, fun, and healthy conversation, and it’s one that football fans need to start participating in.
Not a day goes by that I don’t see fans, journalists, and creators debate the roles of race, gender, politics, and ethics in comics and fandom online, but every time there’s a coach molesting children or someone receiving illegal kickbacks/benefits in sports, there’s a culture of silence built around the scandal that perpetuates it and makes it worse, and when it finally becomes a public discussion, some fans seem more worried about protecting a brand name than they do about the victims or punishing the guilty who violated the trust of those very same fans.
My grandfather was a blue-collar, outdoorsy guy who loved sports, particularly baseball and football. One of the things I took when he passed away was his Redskins blanket, which represented his favorite team. I’d like to think that, despite his love of the game, he would have recognized that love of our fellow man is much more important, as he was the kind of guy who would do just about anything for anyone. He also seemed to appreciate Native American culture and its connection to nature, spending a lot of time fishing, watching shows on wildlife, and sharing with me all the little facts he knew every time we were outside. I think that, if he really sat down and thought about it, he would have sided with the various Native Americans who have voiced their concerns that were drowned out by the loud cheers of millions of fans. I’ll never know for sure, but I’d like to think so.
That’s why I’m writing this, from a fan to a fan. I know what it is to be passionate about something and love it way more than you should any inanimate object or activity, but to put that fervor above common sense – and decency – is heartless greed at its finest. Hasn’t our greed done enough to Native Americans and their culture? Time doesn’t make a bad idea any better. It was wrong to call the team the Washington Redskins in the first place, and it’s still wrong today. Let it go. Be on the right side of history this time. Are you going to support a game or what’s left of a living, breathing culture?
I’m not getting rid of my grandfather’s Redskins blanket. Instead, I’m holding onto it to remember what once was and to wonder what the future may bring as a result of the past. Without knowing where we came from, we won’t know where we’re going, so let’s let this debate serve as a reminder. Are the Braves, Chiefs, and Indians next? Maybe, but these names don’t have the disparaging connotation that “Redskins” has, though their clichéd logos leave much to be desired. Let’s start the discussion with this team and move on from there.
The key words there are “move on.” You’re more than jocks, and we’re more than nerds. Let’s act like it.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at [email protected]