Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: We honored sports teams with racist mascots. Not anymore.
In honoring Washington and Kansas City’s football teams, we became part of the problem. Our organization won’t honor racism anymore.
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. There’s an even better chance you’ve never heard of the RWJF Sports Award, which we bestow each year on organizations that contribute to health by strengthening and serving communities through sport.
But as readers of USA TODAY, you’re no doubt familiar with the controversies and divisions surrounding sports teams that use Native American symbols — whether as mascots, in chants or in memorabilia — for their own purposes. The pro football teams in Washington and Kansas City instantly come to mind.
Our foundation, tucked away in the outskirts of Princeton, N.J., has over the past year unwittingly become part of the problem by using the RWJF Sports Award to honor teams that denigrate American Indian people. We didn’t consider the fact that the team names, mascots and misappropriation and mocking of sacred symbols like headdresses do real damage to the health of people across the country.
For the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health, this is a humbling moment that showed us how much we have to learn. But it’s also a powerful reminder that in 2018, people and organizations with the best intentions are still playing catch-up on issues of race, ethnicity and gender. If a foundation that strives to see everything through the lens of health, wellness and equity — as we do — is getting a core health issue so wrong, it’s worth asking ourselves what else we as a society are missing.
Health and racism
Though one might not think of racism and discrimination as factors in health, the clear science tells us otherwise. They impact the physical, emotional and psychological health of people, especially children.
More specifically, research shows deep psychological consequences caused by the perpetuation of American Indian stereotypes — whether they are deemed “offensive” or not. As University of Arizona researcher Stephanie Fryberg and colleagues found, “American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.”
So one would expect a major health philanthropy to be speaking out against derogatory language and images. Instead, the 2017 RWJF Sports Award recognized as finalists the football teams in Washington and Kansas City, and the foundation became party to injustice and the mistreatment of an entire group of people — a failure that echoes our nation’s struggles to heal centuries-old trauma and right historic wrongs. In short, we got an important health issue wrong.
The national conversation surrounding the use of mascots has been percolating for years, particularly in our nation’s capital, but the status quo has held firm. A 2016 Washington Post survey found that 90% of the Native Americans polled weren’t offended by the Washington football team’s name.
However, as Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, aptly puts it, Native American resilience does not give the team a pass. We also understand that team owner Daniel Snyder won a trademark battle against five American Indian petitioners in the court of law, with the Supreme Court ruling that even a derogatory trademark enjoys First Amendment protections.
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Our foundation operates by a different standard than the sports team in Washington. Today, and moving forward, RWJF will not consider an application to our Sports Award if it is submitted by an entity whose name, brand or practices denigrates, harms or discriminates against any racial or ethnic group. We recognize that organizations as large and influential as ours must own our mistakes and vow to do better.
‘Do you still live in teepees?’
The outrage that greeted the announcement of the 2017 RWJF Sports Award finalists came quickly. Pata told us she was “devastated” when she heard about the finalists.
“RWJF had always been about health and well-being and working with Indian Country in a spirit of community,” she said. “I couldn’t reconcile that history with this decision.”
Listening to Pata’s concerns, along with many other voices, was the beginning of a process of acknowledging our blind spots, confronting our biases, learning how our decisions impact people in Indian Country, and reflecting on what we could do differently. We could no longer ignore the way everyday injustices impact the health and well-being of people like a young man we met over the course of our dialogue with the Native American community. He said his high school peers mock and disparage him, even today, with painful barbs: “Do you still live in teepees? Do you use tomahawks? Do you even have Wi-Fi?”
Big, lasting change — whether it’s cultivating widespread equity or confronting racism and discrimination — requires countless small steps, often over many years, by people across our society. It requires conversations that “happen in a healing way, not a fighting way,” as Pata graciously told us. It requires individuals to change their hearts and large institutions like ours to change our ways. It requires all of us to keep listening, learning and looking in the mirror.
This is how I hope our country can one day be a place where everyone has a fair opportunity for health and well-being, and it’s the only way we stand a chance of bringing healing to our fractured nation.
Richard E. Besser, a physician, is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J. Follow him on Twitter: @DrRichBesser