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The NFL is Teaching Us How To Bully Native American Children

Children exposed to bullying in the form of racial slurs and behavior

October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, a time to recognize the nationwide campaign in America against bullying in schools. The war on bullying is fought by the White House, corporations, principals, teachers, bullying specialists and even other students. Everyone is on board because we know how damaging bullying is to the health and well-being of our youth and that students need adults to enforce anti-bullying policies in order for these policies to be effective.

Unfortunately, there is an equally aggressive war being fought by the Washington football team and the National Football League (NFL) to promote and profit from the use of the “R-word,” a dictionary-defined racial slur against Native Americans that refers to the scalped head of a Native American sold for cash. By using the R-word despite the repeated public protests by the Native American community, the Washington team and NFL are bullying Native Americans and getting away with it. They are funding this war with billions of dollars and fighting this war on television, radio, the Internet and even on the backs of our children in the form of team jerseys and jackets.

When kids wear these jerseys and jackets, use the R-word when referring to the Washington team and display the Washington team logo in their schools, Native American kids are being exposed to racist acts. And when schools follow the Washington team’s behavior by allowing the use and display of the “R-word” in schools, they are forcing Native American children to tolerate racism, creating a “racially hostile environment” and engaging in the very same behavior that schools are proposing to fight in their campaigns against bullying.

Bullying happens when a student is repeatedly harmed, psychologically and/or physically, by another student or a group of students. Typically, bullies are physically, psychologically or socially stronger than the children they bully. “There are remarkable similarities between the NFL’s behavior and how bullying is defined in psychological research,” said Dr. Mitchell J. Prinstein, the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and expert on peer relations. “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. The use of a racial slur is a horrific way to achieve those goals. This form of bullying makes a victim feel devalued, unimportant, ostracized from mainstream society, and clear target for future aggression by others.” Thus, if a child behaved the way Washington team owner, Dan Snyder, did — he responded to calls from Native American groups to stop using the racial slur: “We will never change the name of the team…It’s that simple. NEVER- you can use caps” — that would be considered bullying in a school environment.

A recent “Daily Show” segment called “Catching Racism” on the issue of the Washington team name exposed, albeit for the sake of comedy, how prevalent offensive behavior was during Washington football games. This behavior included displaying the “R-word,” wearing red-face and wearing Native American headdresses. It also demonstrated how harshly Native Americans who oppose the name can be treated, including one Native American protester being threatened at a game by a fan who said, “I’ll f*cking cut you.” This treatment is unfortunately consistent with experimental research showing that Native Americans who protest Native American mascots face discrimination, as well as with qualitative studies demonstrating that online defenders of Native American mascots can be dismissive and denigrating to those opposing those mascots. Further, the NFL adds to such unequal behavior in games by giving a 15-yard penalty for the use of a racial slur against groups other than Native Americans on the field and by suspending players for use of these other racial slurs off the field, yet it proudly displays and promotes a racial slur on and off the field against Native Americans.

Prinstein suggests that the NFL models bullying behavior for children, saying, “As a renowned corporation marketing a beloved American sport, the NFL also is modeling bullying behavior to one of their primary audiences, our children. Research demonstrates that children often learn bullying behavior by witnessing adults’ use of aggressive behavior without sanctions. 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.”

We see examples of how this racist behavior translates into our schools. Native American high school student Dahkota Brown described attending high school football games against a rival school whose team name was the “R-word.” At a typical football game, Dahkota would not only be subjected to fans wearing stereotypical war paint and headdress but also to his own school’s chants of “Kill the R*dskins.” “All of these actions, along with many more, hurt my heart,” Brown said. “All of these screaming fans don’t know how offensive they are, or that they are even in the presence of a Native. Most of the time, they don’t even know that Natives still exist.” Native American children are so egregiously treated unequally that while students who use racial slurs against other groups are often suspended, students can actually be suspended for refusing to use racist slurs against Native Americans. School officials at Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania suspended the student editor and faculty adviser of the school’s student newspaper after they refused to print the “R-word.”

Lawrence Baca, a Pawnee Indian, past president of the National Native American Bar Association and winner of the 2012 American Bar Association Thurgood Marshall Award for his legal career championing the civil rights of Native Americans, explains that the institutional sanctioning of such behavior from organizations like the NFL as well as school administrators contributes to the damaging effects of this behavior. Baca told me: “I grew up in a school with a Native American mascot. Every day I was forced to tolerate an offensive, stereotypical caricature of a Native American as though that image represented my people. But what was hardest was that there was an institutional buy-in from the administration; the adults were condoning it. And that made the emotional damage far worse because adults who I respected were saying I was unequal. And the Washington football team and NFL are making this same statement to children. The problem is that Native American children can at least avoid Washington games. Native American children can’t avoid school and so must suffer this racist behavior that no other child is forced to suffer.”

Baca’s experience is unfortunately confirmed by years of research. Experimental laboratory studies demonstrate causal effects and the specific mechanisms by which Native American mascots influence Native American well-being. Tests have shown that the presence of Native American mascots results directly in lower self-esteem and lower mood among Native Americans, as well as increased negative associations of and prejudicial attitudes towards Native Americans among non-Native American groups. Further, studies have shown that prejudice and discrimination in the form of racial slurs, racial harassment and racial bullying is associated with poor mental health among Native Americans in the form of elevated levels of depression, substance abuse, suicidality, aggressiveness, increased physical pain and maladaptive health behaviors. Professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association, American Sociological Association and American Counseling Association and educational associations such as the National Education Association all have issued statements in the past that Native mascotry is damaging to children’s mental health and development.

So how does the Washington team and NFL teach our children to bully? And why are we turning a blind eye to the Washington team’s use of this slur and our schools’ complacency in allowing similar bullying behavior in our schools? The answer, in part, is that the Washington team and NFL have been developing and teaching us a “playbook” for promoting and supporting the use of a dictionary defined racial slur.

What is this “playbook?”

First, the Washington team and NFL repeatedly reframe the use of a dictionary and government defined racial slur as a term of “honor.” In his letter to fans, Dan Snyder claims, “The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor.” The NFL further went to claim that the team name was made to honor then-coach William “Lone Star” Dietz. This claim ignores statements from the former team’s owner George Preston Marshall, arguably the most infamous segregationist in sports history, in a 1933 interview stated, “The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name R*dskins.” Further, the notion that this term was a badge of honor ignores several examples of racially insensitive behavior including the use of the term “scalp ’em” in the original Washington team song, and the frequent use of red face and appropriation of Native American headdresses at Washington football games. Perhaps most egregiously, NFL spokesperson Adolpho Birch directly contradicted every conventional definition of the term when he said, “It’s not a slur.” Overall, claims made by the Washington team on its website have been labeled as mostly untrue by independent evaluators like the Washington Post.

In actuality, the Washington football team’s name is defined as a racial slur in almost every modern dictionary. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team’s trademark because the term was found to be “disparaging.” Several major Native American organizations including the National Congress for the American Indian (NCAI), National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) and Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) have issued public statements condemning the use of this term. Major civil rights groups such as the NAACP, Leadership Conference for Human and Civil Rights, and the Anti-Defamation League have condemned the practice of using this slur.

Second, the playbook disregards protest of Native Americans and Civil Rights leaders. As of this moment, the Washington team and NFL have not publicly acknowledged that major Native American organizations such as the NCAI, the oldest and most representative organization of Native Americans, have repeatedly issued formal statements that the Washington team name is an offensive slur. However, there have been at least three instances when representatives of the Washington team have claimed Native American support, only to have this claim contradicted. Washington’s team owner Daniel Snyder wrote a letter to season ticket holders defending the team’s name that included an assertion that the Red Cloud School was consulted and the school subsequently approved the use of the “R-word.” In response, the Red Cloud School made a public statement denying any involvement in determining the Washington football team name and stating that it also considers the “R-word” a demeaning racial slur. The same mistake was made by Mark Mosely, who claimed that the Alabama Coushatta tribe was supportive of the “R-word.” The Alabama Coushatta tribe promptly responded, saying that they support the NCAI efforts to oppose the Washington name. Further, whereas Washington football team representatives insisted that no Native Americans protested the name in visits to Native American reservations, Jim Enote, the director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico, said he spoke with Snyder last November about his displeasure with the team name. “Later I walked Snyder to his car, put my hand on his shoulder and told him I was not pleased with the R*dskins mascot and team name and he snapped back with, ‘We are a football team.’”

While polls should not be a basis for determining policy, the Washington team’s disregard of Native American opinion also comes in the selective reporting of polls. In 2004, the Annenberg Center issued a poll that found that 90 percent of Native Americans were not “bothered” by the Washington team use of “R-word.” This poll has been criticized on almost every level, most notably the lack of evidence that those who identified as Native American were in fact Native American. A more recent poll this year that required evidence of tribal membership to participate found that 67 percent of the respondents thought the “R-word” was a racial slur. The Washington team and NFL continue to report the 2004 poll without acknowledging the new poll. Keep in mind that the NFL can act decisively against bullying and racism without needing to consult polls. Imagine the appropriate public outrage if the NFL decided not to sanction Rich Incognito for his use of racial slurs against Jonathan Martin based on poll results.

Third, the playbook trivializes use of racial slurs as being unimportant. Defenders of the Washington team name often dismiss opposition to the team name as an example of political correctness gone awry. Further, defenders of the team name often present a false dichotomy whereby Native Americans should be forced to tolerate racial slurs because they suffer from other “more pressing” issues such as poverty. In response to a letter from Native American U.S. Congressman Tom Cole urging the NFL to support a name change for the Washington team, team representative Tony Wyllie responded by saying, “Don’t they have more important issues to worry about?”

Baca confronts this trivialization, saying, “The ongoing use of racial slurs and offensive images against Native Americans is a real problem because not only does it cause direct harm to the well-being of Native Americans, but also it teaches people that we can be treated unequally. For generations, organizations like the NFL have been teaching the world that we are not real people, but mascots. And those same people who are learning to disregard Native Americans are the ones who vote, make policy, serve as law enforcement and judges, and determine funding for Native American issues.” His statements confirm research studies demonstrating that Native American mascots perpetuate negative stereotypes about Native Americans. Brian Cladoosby, president of the NCAI, agrees that the Washington team’s use of a racial slur is not trivial: “Mocking Native cultures is not trivial. Ending the casual use of racism is important.”

So what can be done?

First and foremost, the Washington football team and the NFL could change the team name and logo. This would unquestionably be the strongest message to adults and children that using slurs and offensive images against Native Americans is unacceptable in this day and age.

Further, the Washington team and NFL could publicly state that “no means no.” If a Native American student asks for another student to stop using or displaying the “R-word” there should be an immediate end to using that term. Otherwise, continued use despite a Native American student’s protest would be considered bullying.

Alternatively, the Washington team and NFL could publicly acknowledge that the use of racial slurs may meet criteria for racial harassment and bullying in schools. It would be rather easy to encourage students to own Washington team attire but to be sensitive to other students by not wearing it in school.

Next, the Washington team and NFL could make policies banning offensive behavior such as red face and Native headdresses from their games. This would follow the lead of the San Francisco Giants, who are considering banning stereotypical and offensive behavior towards Native Americans from their games following an incident of a fan donning a Native American headdress.

However, regardless of how the Washington team and NFL behave, parents, teachers, school administrators, anti-bullying experts and other students need to be consistent with their fight against bullying, recognize that the use of the “R-word” is a racial slur that needs to be removed from our schools. This process was on full display at the Cooperstown, NY, school whose students initiated a movement that resulted in changing their team name from the “R-word” to “Hawkeyes.”

More and more, the NFL is being accused of obscuring behavior that is harmful to the public and of putting profit before public well-being. The Washington football team and NFL can no longer claim that they are not aware that the “R-word” is a racial slur. They can no longer claim that they are unaware of the psychological risks caused by this behavior. And if they do not either stop use of the “R-word” or more publicly denounce the bullying behavior that may result from this practice, they are at least implicitly condoning, and at worst explicitly promoting, the bullying of Native American children. And if we don’t act to remove this type of behavior from schools, we are complicit in not providing Native American children the protection from bullying that they deserve.

Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. His thoughts are his own. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl

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