Washington Redskins Fans Collected Memorabilia for Years. What Now?


Matt Pearson was born in Washington, D.C., in 1983, which means he is old enough to remember watching his hometown football team win their second Super Bowl in 1988. He remembers the smell of chips and beer, his parents screaming like crazy at the television, the team’s record-breaking comeback and victory.

After that, said Mr. Pearson, who is now an industrial designer, “my level of football fanhood was complete and devotional.”

By the time he could turn the television on himself, “there was nothing that would take me away from Sundays with the Washington football team,” he said. “At that time I called them the Redskins. I was obsessed.”

When first confronted with the idea that the team’s name was racist, around the time he was in middle school, Mr. Pearson, who is Black, said: “My brain couldn’t handle it.” But as he grew up, and his politics began to develop, he turned against the name and the league, both of which he found increasingly unacceptable. He no longer watches professional football.

Still, his house, like the homes of many people who grew up in D.C. at the time — including that of my own family; we are friendly with the Pearsons — was once littered with jerseys and memorabilia, including limited-edition Super Bowl victory Coke cans that featured the team’s logo. In my own childhood home, there is still a collector’s edition Redskins-branded Monopoly game, made in 2005.

The team chose to change its name this week, a decision that had been urged for decades by Native American activists and groups but forced by major sponsors including Nike and FedEx. The change will transform jerseys and memorabilia from the merchandise of an active team to artifacts of its racist former name. (On Thursday, multiple allegations of sexual harassment and other forms of abuse within the Redskins organization were reported by The Washington Post.)

Since the death of George Floyd in police custody in late May set off protests against racism throughout the country, brands including Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s have reconsidered the racist imagery they use to sell products. But while those images are affixed to disposable food items, the Redskins name and logo appear on innumerable pieces of merchandise that fans had no plans to get rid of. Some of them are old items that hadn’t been given much thought. Others are souvenirs and keepsakes with significant meaning to their owners.

The millions of people from D.C., Maryland and Virginia who supported or support the local team, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly, are going to have to decide: What will happen to all their Redskins gear?

Jesenia Clepper, 41, will not only continue to sport the logo and the team name but is also making and selling her own shirts prominently displaying them. When we spoke, she said she was wearing a T-shirt with the team’s logo over an American flag, as well as a branded wristwatch.

She said that she grew up extremely poor in Houston, and that she and her nine siblings, including her brother Roosevelt, did what they could to entertain themselves without spending money.

“We played football and we were the Redskins and the Cowboys,” she said. “That was back in ’83. We just adopted the Redskins into our lives and that was our team.” (The team won its first Super Bowl in 1983).

Then in 1989, Roosevelt had an aneurysm, which permanently changed his behavior and cognitive abilities, Ms. Clepper said, choking up as she told the story. For her, the team is a reminder of a happier time. She does not see its name as racist. (Ms. Clepper is Hispanic.)

“I can’t even put it in my head that people actually think that we as fans wear Redskins attire as a form of hate or to disparage Native Americans,” she said, contrasting the symbol with the Confederate flag, which she said was a racist symbol.

The decision to change the name has broken her heart, and she is now “done with the N.F.L.,” she said. “No more football for me.”

“I think there are a couple of examples that could be used in interpretation,” she said. But the vast majority, “since they’re still mass produced, there’s not a lot of value historically in them.”

She said that it would be left to fans to decide whether to save or dispose of their belongings, which she called “images of a continued systemic racism.” She didn’t have high hopes that they would throw them out. She expected them to become similar to symbols of the Confederacy, proud taboos for those who continue to hold on to them.

Lyra Monteiro, a professor at Rutgers University who studies how cultural artifacts can help us understand American history, also saw that as a possible outcome. She said that when people were compelled to recognize that something is offensive to others, particularly when that thing has emotional import, “what mostly comes out as a reaction to that is anger and defensiveness.”

She said that it was a no-brainer that people would have a hard time letting go of the gear, especially given what it meant to their childhoods. Emotional bonds help a culture perpetuate itself.

But Ms. Monteiro, an archaeologist by training, said that the tendency to erase all evidence of objects that had been recognized as racist or otherwise offensive only contributed to further ignorance.

She cited the history of blackface, which she said could be difficult for her students to understand as a problem because they so rarely encountered it before it surfaced in recent political scandals.

She was hopeful that for some fans, the confrontation forced by the name change “can be the deepest and most profound learning opportunity.”

“You know the power of that cultural product, because of what it means to you,” she said. “That can be what drives you to dig into it more deeply.”

Mr. Pearson said that he thinks many of his old jerseys have been donated. But he said that he could see some benefit to keeping an item or two of apparel, even if it seemed like “a relic from another time.”

Its purpose: “To remind myself of my own fervor,” he said. “Just to remember how much your views can change.”



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