The Washington Redskins organization and its owner Dan Snyder have been trying to quash opposition to its name from Native Americans who condemn it as a harmful slur. Distracting moves like the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation and misinformation from RedskinsFacts.org are pretty devious public-relations tactics, but in an article posted to the Psychology Today website, a pair of experts have said there's more to it than PR. What the Redskins and Snyder are engaging in, they say, amounts to bullying of Native Americans, including their children.
“There are remarkable similarities between the NFL’s behavior and how bullying is defined in psychological research,” says Dr. Mitchell J. Prinstein, the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Prinstein, one of the leading experts on peer relations, adds that "A schoolyard bully exerts force towards a passive victim in ways that make them feel unequal. Bullying also is typically used to marginalize a person (or group of people) to damage their relationships or social standing."
Prinstein's analysis appears in a Psychology Today report by Dr. Michael Friedman entitled "The NFL is Teaching Us How To Bully Native American Children."
October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, an effort that Friedman and Prinstein feel is undermined by the existence of the Redskins name and imagery. "Research demonstrates that children often learn bullying behavior by witnessing adults’ use of aggressive behavior without sanctions," says Prinstein. "Using a racial slur or propagating offensive images towards Native Americans not only tells kids that it is acceptable to demean this group, but that similar behavior toward anyone likely would be acceptable. Most states currently have adopted anti-bullying legislation within public schools to promote empathy and respect among youth. It is unfortunate that this work may essentially be undone each time children turn on the TV to watch football."
The last two weeks have not been good ones for the NFL, with headline news about domestic abuse and child abuse by players. The league and teams have demonstrated they'll do the wrong thing first, erring on the side of business-as-usual, before doing the right thing when public outcry demands it. In July, the league agreed to settle a suit brought by more than 4,500 former players seeking resolution for concussion-related claims. Some of the players bringing the suit, who may be facing conditions including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Diseases, accused the league of fraud.
The NFL isn't good at heeding warnings from experts, and when it does take action, it often doesn't go far enough. Here, the league is being warned about a problem that goes beyond wins, losses and ticket sales. How will Snyder, Commissioner Roger Goodell, and the rest of the organization react? Will they give the expertise of Prinstein and Friedman legitimate consideration—or merely wait in the parking lot to give these uppity science guys a noogie?
Later in the Psychology Today article, Friedman suggests a bullying public-relations "playbook" that Snyder, the Redskins, and by extension the NFL, are following. The three methods he mentions are: 1) reframing the name as an honoring term, rather than a denigrating one, 2) disregarding protests from Native groups and individuals, and 3) trivilalizing the discussion by saying Indian country has "more important" things to tackle.
Seeing the behavior of Snyder and the Redskins' pro-mascot campaign in terms of bullying becomes much less abstract when you consider the account of Migizi Pensoneau, a member of comedy troupe The 1491s and one of seven Natives to appear on a certain recent, instantly-famous Daily Show segment. Pensoneau and his fellow activists, with Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones, visited a Redskins game, and some of the footage (mostly Jones pretending to get drunk with tailgaters) was used on the show. But Pensoneau describes what audiences didn't see in a column for the Missoula Independent:
There were points during that hour-long experience where I actually was afraid for my life. I have never been so blatantly threatened, mocked or jeered. It was so intense, so full of vitriol that none of the footage ended up being used in the segment. I’m a big dude—6’1”, and a lotta meat on the bones. But a blonde little wisp of a girl completely freaked me out as I waited in line for the bathroom. “Is that shirt supposed to be funny?” she asked motioning to my satirical “Caucasians” T-shirt. And then she said, “I’ll fucking cut you.” Actually, she didn’t scare me so much as the wannabe linebackers standing behind her who looked like they wanted to make good on her threat.
Pensoneau listed other characters he encountered: "the man blowing cigar smoke in my face, the man who mockingly yelled, 'Thanks for letting us use your name!', the group who yelled at us to 'go the fuck home' ... the dude who blew the train horn on his truck as I walked by the hood."
We'll assume that bigotry and knee-jerk animus toward those who seek change are learned behaviors. Somebody or something made these fans think it's ok to treat Pensoneau and his fellows like this. Maybe these fans are, say, following the lead of their parents, or learned their decorum from Hank Williams Jr. and professional wrestling, or maybe the region is still haunted by the ghosts of segregation and slavery (Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederacy, whose schools were not integrated until 1970, considers the Redskins its home team).
Or maybe it's coming from the Redskins front office. Consider the portrait painted by the Redskins' PR playbook: These protesters are people who ingraciously reject a term of honor, and there aren't many of them, and they're wasting their time on this rather than real problems. When name-change advocates are painted this way by Redskins officials, is it any wonder they incur abuse from the team's fans?
It's National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, and everyone owns a dictionary. Some plain talk is in order. The name, as a dictionary will tell you, is a racial slur. And the tactics being used to defend it, as psychology experts are saying, are bullying.