Hi Ross (if I may),

I have listened to you (first on ESPN, then Sirius, and now your own platform) for a long time. I have always enjoyed your perspective and your personality.  You have taught me many things about football, made me laughed, and encouraged me to consider alternative interpretations of the game. I choose to listen to you (on you podcast, online, and in your writing) because you are fresh and funny, regularly teaching me new things. I have benefited from the many knowledgeable people you have brought on your show. I have even clicked through the Amazon link to support your podcast.

Having said this, I was surprised to read your recent Sporting News column. You are entitled to your opinion and I respect that; however, as one who has studied the history and significance of American Indian imagery, names, and mascots in sports for more than 20 years, your piece seemed out of character and off base. Let me explain.

When you talk about the draft or salary cap, you bring on experts, smart people who you listen to, who offer a deeper understanding of what is going on and why it matters. From what I can tell, you did not consult experts in this area or look for an expansive perspective.  Psychologists, sociologists, historians, and many others have studied this subject generally and the R*dskins particularly. Given that one of your pillars is preparation, I would think you would want to know what the American Psychological Association (to take one organization) has to say and why it adopted a resolution against such imagery, names, and mascots.  And I would hope that you would want to know that studies have connected these symbols and practices to anti-Indian racism, psychological trauma, and (as the NCAA found) the creation of hostile environments, while demonstrating the detrimental impacts they have on self-esteem and assessments of others. To be blunt, these words and images hurt, even as they provide so much joy and such a sense of identity for so many others.

As far as I can tell, you did not even consult a dictionary. If you had you would have read that r*dskin is a pejorative term, an ethnic slur equivalent to the n-word. If we would not cheer for the n-words, why would anyone want to cheer for the r-words?

And while I think you give the franchise, owner, and league a pass, which may have something to do with your roles past and present, I would encourage you to read what your colleagues, fellow journalists and analysts, have said. Why have the likes of Peter King, Bill Simmons, Dave Zirin, and Bob Costas (to name a few) come out against the name and made pledges not to use it?  It is powerful stuff, which is surprisingly absent from your column either as context or counter-point.

One might walk away from your column without a full appreciation of why the R*dskins have become such a divisive issue. You do not inform you readers that the team, which purports to honor indigenous people, holds up some one (Lone Star Dietz) who was an ethnic fraud masquerading as Indian as the inspiration for the team name. You neglect to mention the franchise fought integration and was celebrated by the American Nazi Party, which protested to “keep the Redskins white.” Furthermore, you wrongly suggest that opposition to the name is sudden: it is not. Rather it stretches back decades. Perhaps most notably, it includes a legal case that determined the team name was derogatory and, if not for a legal technicality, would have stripped the franchise of their ownership of the name and logo. And, it continues: a new court case, an organized campaign against such symbols and practices, a local movement to end the name, and social media push to regain dignity and recognition for American Indians on their terms.

You also point to the origin of the term r*dskin. You note, rightly, that it is likely innocuous. It has this in common with other ethnic slurs, including the n-word. Would you defend use of this term because it did not have an ugly origin? Both words are now slurs: one is taboo, the other is a team name that is highly profitable. One you would likely not say on your podcast, the other you do.

One of the more surprising aspects of your column, given your public persona, is the extent to which you subscribe to the dominant framing of the issue. You prefer to talk about offense: how many (indigenous) people are offend? This leads to the supplemental question: how many (indigenous) people support the team and its name? The question should not be about offensiveness, it should be about effects: not how do the images make people feel consciously but how do they impact everyone, how do they relate to a history of anti-Indian racism, how do they forestall the prospects of understanding, enlightenment, and empowerment?

To this, you add a test: how many American Indians are offended? You do not indicate how this might be measured or how data might be collected to address this question? While many polls circulate to substantiate support, scholarly analyses suggest these claims are dubious at best. Moreover, one wonders, what other issues of human rights and moral responsibility might we leave to polling? Would we using polling to determine if slavery were appropriate or defensible? If we found “happy slaves” would we feel emboldened to endorse slavery? Is the internment of Japanese Americans defensible because Asian American pundit Michelle Maklin says so?

You are quite right to point out that some Native Americans support the R*dskins. This raises a number of issues. First, how does their support let white Americans off the hook? Such appeals by the franchise, the league, and many in the public would prefer to interpret support in a rather limited fashion: if we have the support of (some) American Indians, however small or limited, there is no issue. Second, what might lead American Indian individuals and organizations to support mascots?  The limited access to and imagery in popular culture surely contributes to this, as do differing political positions and individual interpretations. Third, when and why do historically white institutions and organization, like colleges and professional franchises, reach out to indigenous people for support? And in turn, under such circumstances, what brings indigenous people to lend their support? Finding one or ten people who are or purport to be Native American means what exactly? Given your interest in what American Indians have to say about the issue, you might want to check out the recent piece on Monday Morning Quarterback that reveals the extent of opposition to the team name.

I would be happy to talk more to you about this. I would applaud you if you had experts on your show (I can share suggestions).

Sincerely, C. Richard King, Professor

Dr. C. Richard King is associate professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University. He is also the author or editor of several books, including The Native American Mascot Controversy: A Handbook (2010), Native American Athletes in Sport and Society (2006), Native Americans in Sports (2003), and Animating Difference (2010).

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One Response to Divisive but not Defensible: An Open Letter to Ross Tucker about the DC Team Name

  1. soilandstar says:

    Superb and compassionate article. I’ve also listened to and enjoyed Ross Tucker from his first day at ESPN Football Today to his current RTFP. I’ll still listen to him.

    However, ever since the 2013 preseason on the RTFP when he said that (and I’m paraphrasing him here) that any offense of the team name ‘redskins’ to native Americans or other groups is ‘anecdotal’ it’s been kinda a drag to know that this intelligent and insightful man (concerning the NFL) doesn’t get it: that being our national history (all of it), the team origins, current conditions of native Americans, and working towards a timely (and quickly needed) solution.

    A companion piece to this I would recommend to Ross would be:

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