Are There Any Native American Football Players in the NFL?

Native Americans have made several important contributions to the NFL. Despite the honorable position in football history, Native American culture is still disrespected via racist names and mascots. Why is this still a topic of discussion? It turns out, there are strong feelings about the issue on both sides.

Do you know the important Native American NFL players of the past and present? Let’s review them as well as the controversy of cultural appropriation in the NFL?

Contributions of Native American NFL players

We can thank Native Americans for teaching us how to make football much safer. According to Mic, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School team was responsible for this big contribution in 1907; they were the first to master the Spiral Pass.

The move came after a particularly dangerous season. In 1905, 19 football players died due to violent clashes during the game. New rules were instituted to make the game safer. This necessitated the quarterback to throw the ball to the running back or the receiver.

The Carlisle Indian School first mastered the new rules in a landmark victory against the University of Chicago. The spiral pass is now an important facet of football, mastered by all the greats.

One of the players on this legendary Carlisle team was Jim Thorpe. Often considered the greatest athlete of all time, Thorpe was instrumental in forming the American Professional Football Association. This league evolved into today’s NFL. One of the first Native American players, Thorpe was a part of six separate pro football teams during his career. 

Notable Native American NFL players

Long snapper James Winchester of the Kansas City Chiefs stands on the sidelines
Long snapper James Winchester of the Kansas City Chiefs | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Today, the NFL includes several Native American players. To name a few, Kansas City Chiefs long snapper James Winchester is of full Choctaw descent. Chicago Bears quarterback Tyler Bray is Potawatomi.

Legendary Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has mentioned that he is part Native American. Now a free agent, quarterback Sam Bradford is of Cherokee descent and played for the Arizona Cardinals in 2018.

To celebrate Native American heritage and its players, the NFL recently created the Native American Youth Football Ambassador Program. The league selected seven young men of Native American descent. The program helps these athletes represent the league in their communities and encourage other youth.

The controversy around NFL team names and mascots

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Although the NFL generally does a great job in encouraging its Native American players, some problematic teams have created controversy. The Washington Redskins attract the most attention due to their name, which many consider racist. The franchise has faced protests and lawsuits demanding a name change, but the Redskins refuse. 

Team owner Daniel Snyder believes the Redskins name celebrates Native culture rather than degrades it. In a statement to the Washington Post, Snyder said, “I’ve listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name. But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family but among Native Americans too.”

After insisting he’d listened carefully to concerns, Snyder continued by rationalizing his position. “Washington Redskins’ is more than a name we have called our football team for over eight decades. It is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect — the same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the original Americans.”

Despite Snyder’s statement, many Native Americans don’t agree. They continue to protest the team’s name. It’s too bad we continue to offend Native Americans when they’ve done so much for the NFL. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to smooth things over.