This Dated Video Helped Make The Case Against The Redskins Trademarks

What you see up there is taken from a VHS tape called Hail to the Redskins and produced by NFL Films in 1986. It's a compilation of highlights from the 50 seasons following the team's move to D.C. from Boston.


The video played a small role in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office case that on Wednesday saw the cancellation of six of the team's Redskins trademarks, on the grounds that the team name is "derogatory" and "offensive." The plaintiffs had entered Hail to the Redskins as evidence, and it's not hard to see why. The 22-minute film, made during the glory days of the Joe Gibbs I Era, has not aged well. Significant chunks of it would seem ridiculous today even to Redskins dead-enders, and watching Hail now is a pretty good reminder that sensibilities change, even if nicknames don't.

The documentary opens with vintage shots of the Redskins band—lots and lots of non-Indians in big headdresses—marching in formation, accompanied by clips of cheerleaders traipsing around the field in short skirts and pigtails with single feathers stuck in their headbands, playing out the white man's sexual ideal of the "squaw"—another contested word—in the flesh. The band and cheer troupe, the latter formerly known as the Redskinettes, are both cited repeatedly by the plaintiffs in the trademark case.

Soon thereafter, the film praises the marketing genius of George Preston Marshall, the owner who moved the Boston Braves to D.C. and rechristened them the Redskins. (Unmentioned here is Marshall's suspected role in brokering a league-wide ban on black players in the 1930s.) We see clips of from Marshall's halftime shows, including one in which someone dressed as an Indian dances with someone dressed as a horse.

Things don't get any better in the 1980s. A sign shown hanging in RFK Stadium, ostensibly from the 1982 NFC championship game against the Cowboys, says, "Welcome to Little Big Horn." Another says, "Scalp 'em live on CBS." As Danny White gets knocked out by Dexter Manley in that game, the narrator intones, "Not since Custer's last stand had Cowboys been so overwhelmed by Redskins!" Talking about the Redskins' championship performance that season, the narrator says, "When the sun set in Pasadena, Super Bowl 17 became another feather in their headdress."

The producers at NFL Films did make some concessions to racial sensitivity, however. The soundtrack features the less offensive version of the team's fight song, also called "Hail to the Redskins," which was semi-whitewashed in the early 1970s by team president Edward Bennett Williams to appease an earlier wave of protesters. ("Scalp 'em, swamp 'em!/We will take 'em," for instance, became "Run or pass and score/We want a lot more!") It's rich to think about this in the context of pro-name advocates pooh-poohing the name debate by claiming the controversy is somehow new, as Al Michaels did just last week, saying, "I mean, for 70-some odd years this was a zero issue, and then it became an issue."

For anybody wanting to be jarred, the NFL is still selling copies of Hail to the Redskins. A DVD will run you just $50, and the availability and price won't be affected by yesterday's decree.

Asked if the government's ruling would have any impact on the NFL's marketing of Redskins merchandise, league spokesman Brian McCarthy responded with the word that's defined the team's and the league's response pretty much since Williams decided that overt scalping imagery was maybe a little bit much. "No," he said.


Disclosures: 1) I've bought and worn Redskins gear, licensed and bootlegged, my whole life, even after 2) Dan Snyder sued me.