Billy Mills, 1964 Olympic gold medalist, during an interview in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Max Bechtoldt/GlobalSport Matters)
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Olympic legend Billy Mills says 'no justification' for Washington's NFL nickname

Billy Mills, 1964 Olympic gold medalist, during an interview in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Max Bechtoldt/GlobalSport Matters)

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, GlobalSport Matters will showcase the Native American athletic experience.

“Nowhere in our country should a football team, but especially in our nation’s capital, be referred to as a R******,” said Olympic legend Billy Mills. “No justification in my mind could give a right image to the word r******.”

The effort to change the Washington NFL team's nickname would help remove some persistent racism in sports.

Mills is a member of the Sioux Nation. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, he won the 10,000 meters as a heavy underdog — and remains the only American to win the event. Mills was in Phoenix recently to speak at Arizona State University on “Indigenous Identity and the Athletic Experience” as part of the observation of Native American Indian Heritage Month.

Mills said he believes the normalization of the nickname “r******” comes from lack of education, for both native and non-native people. Though lawsuits have been filed against the NFL team, the Washington franchise’s ownership remains committed to the nickname.

“Many Indian people, as they become educated, are not exposed to the knowledge of the history of the word,” said Mills.

Mills cites the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, in which hundreds of native people, mostly unarmed women and children, were killed or mutilated. During this era, there was a bounty on the scalps of Native Americans.

“The female scalp brought the biggest bounty, so they started scalping the women, there is documentation to show they scalped the women before they were dead. How could they prove it was a female? They scalped the genitalia also. They scalped the genitalia of our young girls before pubic hair. Young girls, for the highest bounty. As the blood dried, and they were scalping the penis of the man, as the blood dried it took a deep reddish tone. They referred to that as r******” said Mills.

Mills believes not nearly enough people understand this meaning of the word or how damaging and disparaging it is to native people. He believes one of those people is the owner of Washington’s NFL team Dan Snyder.

“Even more insulting when the man is a Jewish man, who says it’s to honor us. He can’t grasp it, but if he can it’s even worse because then there is no empathy.”

The controversy surrounding the name is not new, but it has become more heavily debated in recent years after then-U.S. President Barack Obama called for a name change.

In contrast, Snyder was pleased with a poll that found that 9 out of 10 native people don’t find the name to be offensive.

“The Washington Football Team, our fans and community have always believed our name represents honor, respect and pride,” he said in a statement released by the team. “Today’s Washington Post polling shows Native Americans agree. We are gratified by this overwhelming support from the Native American community, and the team will proudly carry the R******'s name.”

Mills said he feels this is a dangerous way to gauge the feelings about the name though as polling can be very misleading, especially with the lack of knowledge of the history of the world.

“They may say, that’s my favorite team, so people who are in favor of keeping it will go to those people and use them. We are better than that. We are a better country than that.”

Max Bechtoldt is a Sports Journalism Major at Arizona State University

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