♫ Are you ready for some football? ♫ We’re a less than a month away from professional gridiron action and even closer to our beloved college ball. Living in Morgantown WV, home to my WVU Mountaineers, the start of football season induces a Pavlovian happiness into my small community. Relief from summer heat, fall foliage, harvest festivals, the holiday season, it’s all coming right alongside the thunderous crush of helmets and shoulder pads.
And yet, despite the near universal joy that football brings, no thing is untouched by sin. There is much to be said about concussions and the increase in head injury. Violence and sexual assaults are real problems that stem from demanding players be animals on the field and gentlemen off the field. And personally, this time each year, I once again go through the angst and struggle of being a Washington Football fan. Not because the team has flopped since the early 90’s, and not because our team owner is a meddling, sleazy, money-grubbing [redacted]. But, once again, it’s time to own up the fact that my team’s mascot is racist.
For the unfamiliar, here’s the back story. The Washington Redskins have been around since 1932, adopting the Redskins moniker in 1933. Recent decades have seen a push to get the mascot changed because, well, “Redskin” is an official dictionary defined racial slur. Multiple organizations have been founded to support the end of mascotting Native American tropes, and the “Redskins” are a top target for it’s egregious moniker. In 2014, the team started to lose some legal protection over the term when a trademark court found the name “disparaging”, a case which is appealing its way to the Supreme Court. And yet, some 70% to 80% of the fans don’t want the name to change. With the team being the third most profitable in the NFL, there’s certainly no financial incentive to change either.
Here’s the kicker though- two polls from 2004 and 2016, run by the Washington Post, found that 90% of Native Americans don’t find the name offensive. The very people who should be offended are, overwhelmingly, not offended. The reaction to the 2016 poll has been unhealthy all around, with activists trying to tear apart the fairly solid methodology of the study and fans justifying some fairly racist attitudes with the data.
Really, it’s really an unwinnable situation. To keep the mascot is a barrier against the coming-to-terms we in the US need to have with our past abuse of native populations. To ditch the mascot because 90% of a population should find it offensive is also fairly imperialistic. Neither option works to heal the generation spanning collateral damage of Manifest Destiny.
Sometimes, the distinction between Law and Gospel is critiqued for its lack of social justice emphasis, as if it exists only for the psychologically fragile or recovering addict. Setting aside for the moment that all people are fragile addicts, I think there’s some wisdom to be gleaned from law/gospel as it applies to the Washington football problem. Here’s a quick three thoughts that stem from our favorite distinction:
First, the law produces rebellion. The first time I was approached about the racism behind my beloved football team, I balked at the idea the same way I do any other accusation. Instead of owning up to the breached law, thou shalt respect people groups, I found lots of excuses to minimize the judgment. I would blame the nebulous “culture of activism,” point to the team’s charitable work, or groan that the complaints came primarily from rival Dallas Cowboys fans. Anything to not deal with the criticism directly. This is how millions of fans still respond to the topic. It’s also what personally scares me about the legal actions headed to the Supreme Court, that a forced name change will change the name of the team, but not the hearts of fans.
Second, sports fandom is inherently a relationship of grace. To love and be represented by a team, regardless of their success or failure, is to remove the law from the relationship equation. This doesn’t apply to bandwagon fans, of course (you know who you are, Cowboys fans who’ve never lived in Texas or Pats fans living in SoCal). The bond between Washington and their fans has nothing to do with performance, as evidenced by their abysmal past two decades on the field. The law can’t shake a relationship that has nothing to do with performance, even if the law “don’t be racist” is holy, righteous, and good.
Third, heart change isn’t guaranteed, but it is possible with a law/gospel combination. In seminary, my friends and I discussed an anecdotal Luther & Barth comparison that helps break this down. The law boils down to this: you are wrong. Luther suggested heart change comes from applying the law and the gospel: You are wrong but I love you. Barth added a third layer to this model, starting with the gospel first: I love you, you are wrong, and I love you. Barth’s reasoning was that people might run away from the law before hearing the concluding word of love. Which is to say, the driving force for change has to come from those who already love the team, the current fans. They’ll be the most effective drivers of change precisely because of their predisposed track record of loyalty to the city, the team, and the players, RGIII not withstanding.
So, in a few weeks, I’ll be once again cheering and beering for my burgundy and gold. And I’ll be praying for, to quote an old prayerbook, “a happy issue out” of this unwinnable scenario, brainstorming how to be a fan without any easy answers. That might seem too passive, and I understand that frustration. It’s worth noting that Jesus was chastised for his passivity to injustice too. That’s how this ‘left handed’ power stuff works. Sadly, left handed force and passivity don’t win football games. If it did, my boys might just be an NFL powerhouse.