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Fighting Racist Stereotypes in Sports, One Poll at a Time

A thousand people were asked in April if the Washington NFL franchise should change its name and (shocker) 79 percent said no. Respondents were mostly white (65 percent), middle-aged (55 percent, 30-64), conservative to moderate (70 percent) pro football fans (56 percent), and nearly one-quarter (23 percent) were Tea Party supporters. Two percent said they were American Indian/Alaska Native, but they were not asked whether they were citizens of Native nations and, if so, of any specific one, or if they spoke a Native language or needed a translator.

The Associated Press and GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications conducted 1,004 telephone interviews in English or Spanish from April 11 to 15, framing the question this way: “Some people say that the Washington Redskins should change its team name because it is offensive to native American Indians. Others say the name is not intended to be offensive, and should not be changed. What about you: Should the Redskins change their team name, or not?” 11 percent said change the name; 8 percent don’t know; and 2 percent, no response.

AP reported that the 79 percent who want no name change is a “10 percentage point drop from the last national poll on the subject, conducted in 1992 by The Washington Post and ABC News just before the team won its most recent Super Bowl.” (Eighty-nine percent wanted no change and 7 percent wanted change.)

The AP-GfK poll is a good example of why racism should never be put up to a popular vote, because racism will win every time. (Imagine a poll about the N-word in the 1960s.) Not that everyone polled is racist. Some probably answered out of ignorance or failure to appreciate that the topic is nuanced. Some may even have been surprised to hear that Native Peoples are still around.

The question itself is a product of racial bias. The AP, which keeps the style book for most of journalism, does not capitalize the N in Native, Native American or, as in the question above, “native American Indians,” while it does cap the R-word. One is a designation for nearly 600 Native American Peoples, but is lowercased in AP style, while the other is the name of a private sports club and is always capped.

Notice, too, that AP personalizes the R-word — “Should the Redskins change their team name, or not?” – when its is properly used in the first sentence. However, Native Peoples are not personalized or humanized – simply “native American Indians,” when people and/or nations would be respectful and accurate.

Then, there is the set-up, which weights the question on the side of the offenders and even makes an excuse for them, as if intent lessens the impact of the offense. It simply is not up to the offending class to define the nature of the offense or to say what offends the offended.

Another poll — the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey — reared its faulty head in the March 7 hearing before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in Blackhorse et al v. Pro Football, Inc. The football club’s lawyer touted that survey as proving scientifically that 91 percent of American Indians are not offended by the team name. One of the three trademark judges reminded him that the 2004 poll is way out of bounds, given that evidence in the case is confined to the period of existing federal trademark licenses, 1967-1990.

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In a sea of queries on many other topics, Annenberg posed a single convoluted one to 768 persons it claimed were Native American: “The professional football team in Washington calls itself the Washington Redskins. As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or doesn’t it bother you?” Annenberg reported, “Most American Indians say that calling Washington’s professional football team the ‘Redskins’ does not bother them” and that only 9 percent said the name was “offensive.”

“The sample size is incredibly small,” said Professor and Chair C. Richard King, Department of Critical Gender & Race Studies, Washington State University. “The study shows something more than a lack of understanding of Indigenous Peoples, something akin to a total disregard.”

Co-Editor of Team Spirits, Native Athletes in Sport and Society and Encyclopedia of Native Americans in Sports, King calls the survey “troubling at best, not especially reliable and not really a study of American Indian understandings of mascots, but a kind of ill-conceived looting from which knowledge could be manufactured rather cynically for the next news cycle”

“And they still did not ascertain that respondents were actually Native People,” said Professor Ellen J. Staurowsky, Department of Sport Management, Goodwin School of Professional Studies, Drexel University.

“Repeated in headlines and taken up as fact,” said Staurowsky, “this finding serves as an anchor for those who recast a racial expletive as a benign symbol of community good will (and) is simply accepted on its face without critical consideration because it allows the status quo to remain in place.” She calls the poll “flawed from the start” and its question “unanswerable.”

Staurowsky, King and others also have critiqued the race prejudice in a 2002 poll by Sports Illustrated, which declines to release its data about the “American Indians” it claims it surveyed.

Staurowsky says the Washington franchise is “capitalizing on the pain and suffering caused by racism so profound and so deep that it cynically attempts to pit American Indians against each other through this kind of superficial ‘opinion’ polling.”

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Muscogee), is an award-winning Columnist for ICTMN and President of The Morning Star Institute.