Q&A: Waubgeshig Rice on far-reaching impact of Washington team name change

Protest speak out against the Redskins team name outside U.S. Bank Stadium before an NFL football game in October 2019. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Waubgeshig Rice remembers the first time a racist slur was aimed at him. He was around eight years old, playing minor hockey in Parry Sound, Ont., when white children called him the R-word.

Rice felt immediate shock, but the gravity of the verbal attack didn’t really sink in until he was driving back home with his parents following the game. These days, any such incident would spark national attention. However, that certainly wasn’t the case in the late 1980s.

“Back then, there just wasn’t the awareness or the incentive to fight back because it would have seemed like a huge monolithic structure to come up against,” says Rice, an Anishinaabe-Canadian author and former broadcaster who hails from the Wasauksing First Nation. “I don’t think there was as much drive to fight something like that. It was just sort of ‘absorb it and digest it and try to move on.’”

That one word was not easy to move on from, though. It followed him through the early part of his life and even penetrated his childhood hobby.

Rice’s father fostered a love of sports in his son and the two were avid fans of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. Whenever Rice checked the sports pages to read about their team, he’d encounter the R-word, which was the name of the league’s Washington organization.

Seeing the word offended Rice and made him uncomfortable. When Buffalo and Washington faced off in the 1992 Super Bowl, those feelings were even more pronounced.

“The Bills ultimately lost,” says Rice, 41. “And, you know, it kind of felt like adding insult to injury in some ways. I remember watching that game with [my dad] when I was 12 years old. And it was very disheartening. It was very sad. The Bills lose not just because they lost the Super Bowl, but they lost to a team with a racist name.

“It just seemed in the early 1990s that, even though awareness was improving, we were still so far into the margins that it didn’t feel like any meaningful change would happen at the professional sports level,” he adds. “Back then, I just didn’t really believe anything like that was possible. But, in recent years, obviously, change is happening and we’re seeing a historic moment [now].”

The Washington franchise announced on Monday that it will officially retire the team’s name and logo. The decision comes after the larger conversation of Indigenous team names and logos has been renewed amid the ongoing fight for racial justice. This conversation has reverberated in Canada, too, shining a light on the name of the CFL’s Edmonton club.

Sportsnet caught up with Rice to learn about his thoughts and feelings on the subject.

SPORTSNET: When you see sports headlines and an Indigenous team name flashes across the screen, what goes through your head?

RICE: Well, I find the blatant examples offensive. It disturbs me to see some slurs so freely thrown around like that and I often won’t click on the story or follow up on it because I don’t want to see those particular words repeated over and over in front of my eyes. So, I have tended to avoid coverage of some of those teams over the course of my sports fandom. And just cause I don’t want to see that, it becomes difficult, obviously, when my favourite teams play.

I think specifically about the Blue Jays playing Cleveland in the 2016 playoffs. That was difficult. Seeing the logo: “Chief starts with a W.” It’s a slur against Indigenous peoples. And they still used that logo on their caps during that series. I’m obviously very passionate about the Jays and tuned into each one of those games. But seeing a starting pitcher, a close-up shot of him getting ready to wind up with that logo front and centre on his head was difficult. I find that image very offensive, so I was glad that Cleveland retired that image. But those are the times where it makes it tough and uncomfortable to be a sports fan.

I think back to when I used to play fantasy football all the time and whenever the draft came up every year, I would specifically avoid drafting a Washington player, no matter how good they were. Because I didn’t want to have that sort of connection to my fantasy football team. And it’s obviously a very trivial thing and ultimately pretty meaningless. But even then, I didn’t want that regular reminder.

Speaking of the Washington football team, how big of a step is that in your eyes?

I think it’s a huge step and, obviously, the people that need to be acknowledged are the Indigenous activists who’ve been speaking out about this for decades. And those accelerated by the Black Lives Matter movement and recent actions to bring all kinds of awareness in all realms into the spotlight. And ultimately, it was the sponsors who prompted the decision in the end. Racism is bad for business, and I think these big corporations are realizing that. They forced Washington’s hand. And thankfully, we are now clearly seeing who will be on the wrong side of history. I’m thankful that this has finally happened.

There’s been conversations, like you mentioned, in the past about these teams changing their names. But it never reached the boiling point that it is at right now. What do you make of the public shift in awareness? Do you have hope this will last into the future, or do you see the push to support marginalized communities as just a trend?

That’s the biggest question I think we’re facing right now. It is a hot topic of conversation. And fortunately, we have seen some meaningful change in recent months as a result of this more widespread awareness of issues of racism. But it remains to be seen. Hopefully we’ll still be talking about these things in three, six, 12 months’ time. But I take solace in the fact that there has been concrete change. The Washington team will no longer be known as that slur. And whereas I may have been a little more hopeless when I was 12, 13, 14 years old, now at 41 years old, with two young boys (aged three and one month) who may grow up to be sports fans — two Anishinaabe boys — they’ll likely grow up in the future without any of these references or offensive images or slurs in professional sports. I’m thankful for that. They’re going to have a different experience than I did growing up.

Was that something you ever thought or worried about: That one day, if your boys became sports fans, you were going to have to talk to them about the offensive logos and team names that they would encounter?

Oh, absolutely. Because I don’t see myself dropping out of sports fandom altogether — I will continue to watch sports. I really enjoy just sitting at home and watching the game. And my older son, who’s three and a half, is already well familiar with hockey. He knows I watch the Maple Leafs on a regular basis. So he’s aware of what these sports are and how I feel about them. And yeah, I was prepared to mention to him in maybe like five, six, seven years’ time, when he really starts paying attention, what is at stake in terms of his identity and how potentially his Anishinaabe self would be trivialized as a result of what he’s seeing in the mainstream sports media reflected back at him. But thankfully, I hope by the time he really starts getting into it, and then our younger son as well, that they won’t have to worry about these things at all.

You’ve said that some Indigenous team names don’t offend you while others are blatantly racist. What do you make of the division of thought within communities regarding these names? For example, a body that represents Inuit in Canada’s western Arctic region said it does not take exception to the term “Eskimo” in the name of the Edmonton CFL franchise and said it supports such use “as long as it is used in a respectful manner.”

I’m not going to dispute anybody’s personal opinions whatsoever. They’re entitled to believe what they do. But I think by sort of going through the weeds in that way, if I say, “Oh, I don’t have an issue with this particular team,” that perspective may be weaponized against me and against a wider movement. So I’m always trying to be careful about that because, at the same time, just because I may find something inoffensive, somebody else may find it particularly devastating. And I don’t want to detract from that person’s emotions or opinions. So, yeah, I think it can be a problem if we start bearing down specifically on particular examples.

Jordin Tootoo had a very poignant statement on Twitter the other day about the varying perspectives of different generations of Inuk people.

I thought it was very careful and obviously very genuine. And I think that gets at the core of who we are as regular, complicated people. We have different opinions on different things. And there’s also a huge diversity of opinion and of experience among Indigenous nations right across North America. We obviously don’t all speak as one. And that’s, I think, one of the main issues with having team names and mascots represent Indigenous people as a whole: The mainstream really is brainwashed into believing that we are relics of the past and that we’re all one homogenous group. And it really trivializes culture, I think, and it dehumanizes the diverse nations that comprise Indigenous people basically everywhere.

So, all of that is to say, I think Edmonton definitely needs to take a serious look at their team name and change it because even though Jordin Tootoo may not take specific offence to it, a lot of other people do. And that’s where I see the potential of an opinion like his, the more positive one, possibly being exploited by people who are resistant to that change. So, yeah, I think it’s time, for Edmonton to make that change as well.

When teams look at potential new names, what should they consider? Would you prefer a team with an offensive moniker just change their name to something completely unrelated — like, for example, if Cleveland changes their name to the Cleveland Spiders? Or is there a way to positively honour Indigenous communities?

That’s really tricky because I believe there is a way to positively honour Indigenous nations and their histories. But you sort of run the risk of, again, further trivializing their diverse experiences and histories. And it’s really, I think, impossible to get consensus on what exactly you should call a team or how you should represent them, given that diversity of thought that I’ve mentioned earlier. So I think it’s likely easier to abandon that altogether and try to find some different kind of representation. Some other image or some other object or some other historical traits about that particular city to sort of hone in on and maybe celebrate.

Like the NFL’s Washington team, the baseball club in Cleveland is on the brink of change. It put out a statement recently saying they’re committed to determine the best path forward. What do you make of that?

Well, I’m glad. And they did change the logo a few years ago, which I was happy to see. And if they move beyond their current name, I think that’s great as well. And thankfully, the Washington NFL team has possibly set the precedent. And you’ll start seeing some dominoes fall over the coming years and perhaps Cleveland will move beyond that as well. Fingers crossed.

Throughout the history of sports teams having these racist names and logos, the issue has been one of humanization. And young Indigenous sports fans don’t see their lives or their experiences validated when they’re dehumanized in that way on such a grand scale. And it further perpetuates low self-esteem issues. It possibly contributes to mental health issues and other extreme examples of maybe suicide and addiction.

It’s incumbent upon the bigger sports organizations to set a good example, to provide real inclusivity and real diversity, and that is by eliminating all these representations altogether. So, again, I’m hopeful for the next generations.

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