What the NFL Can Learn From Broadway, or I’m an Indian Too

Recently, 50 members of the US Senate signed a letter urging the NFL to change the name of the Washington Redskins. The name of the DC team has been under scrutiny for some time now, and the issue has proven to be just as divisive as the daily politics the Capitol is known for. If you’ve kept up with any of this, you’ll know that among the reasons the name has not been changed include: “We have a fight song,” “Most American Indians don’t have a problem with it” (which isn’t really true), and even, “It’s tradition.” Certainly, there are other more costly reasons why, but let’s just consider the last item.

Let’s talk about tradition. Football’s not the only thing with tradition. A beloved Broadway show like Annie Get Your Gun has tradition, too. The smash hit musical made its Broadway premiere in 1946 — about 14 years after the Redskins were established. Not only did the show have a long run in New York, but it also when on to conquer London. It was Irving Berlin’s longest-running show, and he had some real touchdowns — “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “Anything You Can Do.” However, when the production was transferred to film in 1950, several American-Indian groups called a foul on the play. Numbers like “I’m an Indian Too” and “Colonel Buffalo Bill” were deemed to be insensitive at the time. Time marches on and so did a few more revivals.

It wasn’t until 1999 when Peter Stone stepped up and cut the two numbers. He also made other additions and changes, which caused a lot controversy. But, that’s the key here. He may have caused controversy in that theater purists were up in arms about the changes he made to a beloved musical with a rich tradition. Who messes with a show produced by the great Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II? What Stone did was capture the power of controversy while he eliminated the threat of alienation. Let’s be honest: Irving Berlin wrote some timeless music, but he was also wrote a few things that would fall into the insensitive category. Hey, it was the ’30s. It was also about the time the Redskins came on the scene.

Today, live entertainment competes with so many other things for peoples’ attention. Now more than ever before we need to find a way to be relevant and current to audiences. In some instances, that includes evolving brands and content just as society itself has changed.

Let’s not forget, Washington has already done this once. For a city riddled by gun violence, with almost 500 homicides a year in the early ’90s, the “Bullets” seemed to strike the wrong tone for a basketball team that should have been a positive force in the life of a city. The Bullets, too, had a tradition and won a championship, but they made the move.

Other entertainment properties have eliminated things that may have been fine at the time, but eventually had to go. Bugs Bunny, for example, once did this:

It’s part of Bugs Bunny’s “tradition” for sure, but it’s also one that’s no longer in keeping with the belief systems or values of the present day, even though a lot, even most, of Bugs Bunny is still funny, relevant and worth watching. Likewise, the Washington Redskins have a tradition, much of which is laudable, positive and worth celebrating. The name doesn’t happen to be among those.

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