Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: How The Washington NFL Team Got Its Controversial Nickname

Eighty-three years ago, Washington's current NFL team was born as the Boston Braves. The story behind the franchise's eventual nickname has nothing to do with honor or courage.

by Jack Moore
Jul 9 2015, 2:06pm

Photo by Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

In the beginning, the team was known as the Boston Braves. This was 83 years ago—as of today, actually—and during its inaugural season, Boston's first football team finished 4-4-2 in a league featuring comically anachronistic nicknames like the "Portsmouth Spartans" and "Staten Island Stapletons." After sharing a stadium with their namesake, Boston's National League baseball squad, for that debut season, owner George Preston Marshall moved the football Braves to Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox.

The "Redskins" name by which the original Boston Braves are now known was not the product of deep historical thinking, nor was it coined to celebrate Native American courage and dignity. It was not even meant to honor "Lone Star" Dietz, Marshall's supposedly Native American head coach. Last year, MMQB reporter Jenny Ventras found an Associated Press report from 1933 in which Marshall—not coincidentally, a devout racist—denied any connection between the name and Dietz. The presence of Dietz and some Native American players on his roster, Marshall said, "has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins."

READ MORE: Not Your Mascot: Inside The March Against Dan Snyder's Racist NFL Team Name

No, the real impetus for Marshall's name change was brand synergy. Marshall wanted to keep his team's recognizable Native American imagery—and red uniforms—even as his team moved to a different building. He was appealing to Boston's love of Red Sox red more than anything else. As ThinkProgress's Travis Waldron dug up last year, an article from a 1972 Washington game against the Atlanta Falcons confirms the simplicity of the mascot's history:

"The Redskins also copied a baseball team, the Boston Braves. George Preston Marshall started with his team in Boston on Braves Field. When he switched playing sites, he wanted to change names but keep the Indian motif. Since he was now sharing a park with the Red Sox and at the same time liked Harvard's crimson jerseys, Redskins seemed appropriate. Redskins they have remained, a proud tradition. Until now, that is."

More proof that in American sports, it takes nothing more than mere existence to create a "proud tradition." From 1946 to 1970, Marshall's team suffered a 25-year stretch without appearing in a postseason game, going a combined 114-180-6 while being outscored by over 1,500 points. Pride and tradition only came after Washington started winning, with a playoff appearance in 1971 and an NFC East title in 1972.

Protesting the Washington NFL team nickname before a 2013 game at Lambeau Field. --Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves name is based on similarly weak historical grounds. The owner of the original Boston National League baseball team, James Gaffney, belonged to the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City. The machine, born out of what was originally a social club for "pure Americans," in the late 1700s, used as its logo a caricature of the Lenape nation chief Tamanend. Gaffney sold the Braves in 1915, but the name and Native American imagery have since followed the club to Milwaukee and Atlanta.

Defenses of these names always rest on some vague invocation of tradition, history, or the past. When called upon to provide the receipts, something invariably comes up counterfeit. "Lone Star" Dietz's claim he was Native American? Almost certainly false. Daniel Snyder's claim the name was a badge in honor of Dietz, parroted by Roger Goodell? Demonstrably false. Snyder's claim the name is not a slur? Rejected by the U.S. Patent Office Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

Last November, I attended a protest against the Washington NFL team's name in Minnesota. The words of Native American activist Charlene Teters have stuck in my head ever since: "Our ancestors work through us." When Marshall dropped "Braves" for "Redskins," he did so for baldly commercial reasons. Nothing more. This is the work Snyder continues today. Snyder values his dated, embarrassing sports entertainment brand over the dignity of an entire race of people. The name is racist, its origins are not proud, and any claims otherwise cannot stand in the face of the name's true history.

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