The Case Against The Confederate Flag Is Also The Case Against The Washington NFL Team's Nickname

The current political and cultural debate over the Confederate flag mirrors the argument over the Washington NFL team's nickname.

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Jun 25 2015, 4:06pm

Photo by EPA/JOHN TAGGART

South Carolina's highest-paid, most influential state employee made history this week, when University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier supported Governor Nikki Haley's call for the Confederate flag flying over the state's capitol to be taken down.

Rejecting the banner of Southern rebellion was a bold, vital act—but like many standing up against the rebel flag these days, the Ol' Ball Coach is sitting on the sidelines of a very similar fight.

There's another symbol of subjugation, oppression and prejudice in the news, one Spurrier once proudly supported. The former skipper of the Washington National Football League franchise hasn't said a word about his old team's racist nickname, even though the arguments around the team's identity echo the long-simmering debate now boiling over on the floor of the South Carolina statehouse.

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

On June 17, a young white man drove to a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot nine parishioners to death. When photos surfaced of the alleged shooter posing with guns and racist symbols, including the rebel flag, criticism followed: How could South Carolina, home to roughly 1.3 million Black citizens, actively endorse a standard of white supremacy?

On June 23, just hours after Haley's statement, Washington owner Dan Snyder's lawyers went almost unnoticed as they petitioned the U.S. District Court. Their argument: to overturn the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's decision that the epithet R******* is disparaging to Native Americans—and therefore can't be trademarked, per federal law.

Despite decades of protest and legal action by various Native groups and plaintiffs, as well as the growing disapproval of politicians, pundits and the public, owner Dan Snyder has made it clear he will fight to the bitterest possible end. Whether or not he wins this appeal, the arguments will rage on.

At first glance, the Confederate flag and Washington team nickname fights seem completely different: One is government-sanctioned display of a flag inseparable from the treasonous, oppressive regime it once represented the American Apartheid that followed; the other is the nickname of a privately owned football team with nearly 80 years of history behind it.

The case for preserving and honoring the Confederate flag, though, mirrors the case for keeping R*******. Perhaps more importantly, the arguments against both flag and nickname are essentially identical.

The upshot? If you're a NFL fan who isn't cool with state capitols proudly hoisting a banner synonymous with slavery, segregation, lynchings and hate, you shouldn't be cool with Washington's racist nickname. No matter how much you love the team.

Let's dig a little deeper.

Protesters rally outside a Washington-Minnesota NFL game in 2014. —Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The first defense of both symbols is tradition. It has always been this way, the thinking goes, so it must always continue. Ironically enough, this argument ignores actual history. Fact: the rebel flag didn't fly over the South Carolina capitol for nearly a hundred years after the Confederacy's surrender. It was first raised in 1962, according to NPR's Jessica Taylor, officially to commemorate the centennial of the secession—but widely received, as Taylor wrote, as a "reaction to the civil-rights movement and school desegregation."

How so? When the State of Georgia commissioned a study of the Confederate flag, then part of its own state flag, the findings were damning:

Despite the hundredth anniversary of the Civil War, the likely meaning of the battle flag by that time was not the representation of the Confederacy, because the flag had already been used by Dixiecrats and had become recognized as a symbol of protest and resistance. Based on its association with the Dixiecrats, it was at least in part, if not entirely, a symbol of resistance to federally enforced integration. Undoubtedly, too, it acquired a racist aspect from its use by the Ku Klux Klan, whose violent activities increased during this period.

Regardless of whether honoring the Confederacy was ever a noble thing to do, the flag's use by segregationist politicians, powerful hate groups and, yes, white supremacist mass murderers as a symbol of pride and defiance over the last century-and-a-half completely overwhelms whatever "heritage" there was to be proud of in four years of fighting for slavery.

Moreover, the mere fact that the Confederate flag has been left up in Columbia since 1962 doesn't imbue it with virtue, or undo the atrocities done under it.

Similarly, the Washington NFL team name wasn't brought down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets. The franchise was born in Boston and originally named "Braves," after the baseball club with which it shared a stadium. "Braves" didn't directly refer to Native American warriors, but rather Tammany Hall politicians. It was a political gag, the New York industrialist who owned the baseball team tweaking aristocratic Bostonians.

George Preston Marshall bought full control of the football team in 1933, and changed the name from "Braves" to its current slur. Contrary to team owner Dan Snyder's contemporary assertions, Marshall never meant to honor Native Americans with this name change, and he told the Associated Press so at the time.

Next, consider the fallback position of both rebel-flag supporters and Washington fans: Their personal feelings. Emotional relativism. The flag or nickname may mean something bad to you, this line of thinking goes, but it means something good to me.

On June 19, David A. French of The National Review wrote an impassioned defense of the rebel flag's place in public life. French spoke eloquently of the deep significance the rebel flag has for him and many other white Southerners. He was gifted a flag by his grandmother, his ancestors proudly served in the Confederate army and he feels the South's "reverence of valor" is an unqualified virtue. Banning that flag from historic Confederate sites would be an erasure of his ancestors from history, he argued, a repudiation of everything he was taught to feel about his forebears.

Likewise, Washington fans have decades' worth of memories and goodwill attached to the team's nickname. They inherited their fandom from their parents, their grandparents. Their beloved team played for or won NFL championships in the 1930s, 1940s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Songs, chants, colors, uniforms and flags unite generations of one of the biggest, proudest fan bases in the NFL.

It is that fan base, that history, that tradition, that makes the team the third-most valuable in the NFL, per Forbes. It is their support, their investment, their passion that tripled the franchise's value during 16 years of flagrant mismanagement and on-field futility. It is this $2.4 billion worth of collective goodwill the trademark cancellation supposedly threatens.

No amount of nostalgia, though, can erase what these symbols mean—what they've always meant.

Yes, French's ancestors (and millions like them) fought valiantly to defend their way of life—but that way of life was built entirely on the backs and lives of slaves. There's no getting away from this: A simple CTRL+F for "slave" on the The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States pulls up 83 hits.

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery," declared the State of Mississippi. "Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth." It's impossible to honor the Southern rebellion without honoring the vile institution for which it rebelled.

Along the same lines, the Washington fan base whose wealth Snyder depends upon was intentionally built, by Marshall, through direct appeal to Southern rebellion and racial prejudices.

Marshall was a proud, defiant racist with a fervent love of the antebellum South and a literally undying commitment to racial segregation and white supremacy. Not only did Marshall famously refuse to integrate his team until ordered by the Kennedy administration, Marshall likely convinced fellow owners to ban black players in the first place.

In 1959, just before the South Carolina legislature would first fly the rebel flag over its capitol dome, Marshall wanted to show his support for the Southern fight against integration and desegregation. He changed a line in his team's fight song from "Fight for old D.C." to "Fight for old Dixie." To drive the point home, he also had the marching band play "Dixie," the unofficial national anthem of the Confederacy, immediately following the fight song.

This is the tradition, the heritage, to which Snyder clings. The Confederate flag stood for white supremacy from the moment the first one was stitched, and it's been underscored by mass violence against black bodies for 150 years. The slur "R******" has been used in hate against subjugated, nearly eradicated Native peoples for nearly as long—and its use as the Washington NFL team's name is rooted in Southern anti-black hate.

What these symbols mean to a modern, well-meaning, historically-ignorant Southern white person and/or football fan is irrelevant when those same symbols fly over capitol buildings and saturate mass media, figuratively whitewashed.

Protestors rally outside the South Carolina State House. —Photo by EPA/JOHN TAGGART

The good news? For many in the South, even in the oldest strongholds of Dixie heritage, the Charleston killings made them see just how blind to this fact they've been. Southern legislators, constituents and commentators immediately started debating what the rebel flag stands for, why it's flown in public spaces and whether it ought to be anymore. This has swelled into a wave of sentiment decrying Confederate iconograpy. Legislators have introduced bills, retailers have pulled merchandise stock; public and private institutions have raced to distance themselves from the stars and bars.

Taking the flag down from the capitol does not, as French put it, "chisel away" the names of his ancestors from history, or "bulldoze the memorials" in their honor. It does not mean Southerners cannot be proud of their people or their homeland—and it sure as hell doesn't end racism anywhere.

All it means is that African-Americans—whose Southern heritage matters, too—will no longer be ruled by a government willing to overtly function under a banner of white supremacy.

Likewise, changing the Washington NFL team name to Warriors, Red Hawks, Red Hogs or anything else wouldn't mean confiscating those Lombardi trophies, or taking Sammy Baugh's bust out of the Hall of Fame—hell, even Marshall will still be enshrined in Canton.

The fight song's lyrics have been changed; they can be changed again. The logos have been changed; they can be changed again. The name has been changed; it can be changed again. The history and pride of Washington fandom has endured, and will endure, no matter what the nickname is.

"It is time to acknowledge our past, atone for our sins, and work for a better future," South Carolina State Senator Paul Thurmond told his colleagues on June 23, per Sam Spence of the Charleston City Paper. "That future cannot be built on symbols of war, hate, and divisiveness." Thurmond informed his fellow lawmakers—save Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the Senator and pastor killed in the terrorist attack—he will vote to remove the Confederate battle flag.

Outside that capitol building, on the other side of that flag, is another landmark: A statue of Thurmond's father Strom, the late U.S. Senator whose crowning achievement was an impassioned 24-hour filibuster to block desegregation. Thurmond's own political legacy may be defined by the speech he made rejecting his father's. "I am aware of my heritage," he said. "I am not proud of this heritage." If that man can stand in that building and renounce that flag, surely Snyder and his fellow Washington NFL team fans can do the right thing when it comes to the franchise's nickname. Surely they can follow suit.