Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) discuss the debate over whether the NFL's Washington Redskins should change their name.
There aren't enough words in the OED to describe the despicable tenure of Daniel Snyder, Washington Redskins owner. One poor blogger got sued by Snyder just for cataloging all his transgressions as owner. But one of the biggest continuing scandals perpetuated by Snyder—the Washington team name you I casually wrote and you casually read two sentences ago—actually has the support of a majority of the team's fans.
A variety of Native American groups and local fans have been asking Snyder for years to change the team's name from its current slur to a more appropriate moniker. The word 'redskin' has had negative racial connotations since the 19th century and is known to many Native Americans as The R-Word. But in an interview with USA Today last week, Snyder said a renaming would only occur over his dead body. "We'll never change the name," he said. "NEVER—you can use caps."
Unfortunately, Snyder has the backing of a majority of the country. A recent poll found that 79 percent of Americans support keeping the name, and only 11 percent thought it should be changed. Armed with that kind of public support, Snyder will continue to brush off litigation from understandably outraged Native Americans.
Across the four major sports there are the MLB's Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves and the NFL's Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs (and that's without addressing the morass of college-sports nicknames a la the Florida State Seminoles). Just imagine if we had the equivalent team names for, say, black people in Louisiana or Jews in Brooklyn. Snyder and others have argued that Native American titles are OK because of a franchise's proud tradition. But shouldn't the real traditions to worry about be the ones that American frontiersmen obliterated while virtually exterminating the "redskins" and then naming their team after them?
Even among the "Indian" names, Washington and Snyder stand out in a bad way. You can at least argue that "Braves" or "Indians" carry a positive or neutral message, but there is no way to portray the use of a slur like "Redskins" in a non-negative light. Meanwhile, the downside of changing the name is minimal, both financially and culturally.
Snyder has a blueprint for a positive name change in his own backyard. From 1973 to 1996, Washington's NBA team was nicknamed the Bullets. But after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, owner Abe Pollin (a longtime friend of Rabin) finally saw the light and changed the name to Wizards in 1997. Sixteen years later, there isn't exactly a hue and cry to Bring Back The Bullets (correct me if I'm wrong on that, Patrick). Snyder could follow in Pollin's footsteps and do the right thing. But he won't.
Patrick, you're our resident D.C. native and fan. What's your take on this?
First things first: A larger number of Washington basketball fans would be more than happy to see the Wizards franchise rechristen itself as the Bullets. Team owner Ted Leonsis is on board, too. And given that the club already has junked its unspeakably generic '90s uniforms for red, white, and blue duds that stylistically recall the team's 1970s championship gear—coincidentally, a major victory in the War on Teal—I wouldn't be surprised to see "Wizards" join "CyberRays" and "Xtreme" in the dustbin of historically lame team nicknames.
Washington's professional football team is another matter.
As a sportswriter, I've typed and said the word "Redskins" thousands of times. It has been a part of my job. Each and every one of those times, I have never meant or intended anything offensive. To the contrary, I always have been referring to a particular group of contractually obligated football players. Not Native Americans in general. Definitely not a particular Native American. (Well, unless someone on the roster or working in the team's front office happened to be ethnically Native American, in which case, the reference was totally inadvertent on my part). Until recently, I can't say I ever even thought about Native Americans while using the moniker.
And that, more than anything, is the problem.
This is what we think about indigenous people in the United States of America: We don't. Not really. Not beyond the occasional old Western movie, or maybe enjoying the work of Sherman Alexie. Native Americans were colonized, slaughtered, forcibly assimilated, herded onto permanent internment camps and largely wiped out before most of us were born, a kind of ethnic cleansing and ongoing American apartheid that mostly is ignored in our pop culture and largely left out of our history books. When comedian Chris Rock once joked that the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade contained "three real Indians" and a bunch of "Puerto Ricans with a bunch of feathers in their hair," he wasn't really joking.
The word "Redskin" is an obvious, self-evident racial slur. It fails the Full Room test, as in: would you walk into a room full of Native Americans and yell, "Wassup, Redskins?" Of course not. And that makes it wrong—wrong and embarrassing, really—as a team nickname. Still, I'm not surprised that 79 percent of Americans don't see things that way, don't see the nickname as offensive, don't feel ashamed and offended out of their own senses of dignity, respect and sheer, basic kindness when using it. They don't think twice, because they're thinking about football and touchdowns and merchandise and the Dallas Cowboys game. They're not thinking about the living, breathing people who are hurt by "Redskins," or what widespread acceptance of the nickname says about our collective historical and cultural amnesia, our eager forgetting of the nation's sins.
Look, I've done the math. Changing the team's nickname would cost Dan Snyder a good deal of money. Which probably explains his obstinate stance. But it wouldn't bankrupt the franchise. I've looked at other schools and teams that have discarded Native American nicknames. In each and every case, diehard fans resisted change. Got emotional. Decried "political correctness"—and by the way, has any term this side of "surreal" become more meaningless in modern American speech?—run amok. And then? The next season came. The games followed. The very same fans ended up back in the stands and/or buying a bunch of replacement nickname merchandise. Why? Because they're fans. They like the players, and they like the games, and that's mostly what they think about. Change the Redskins name, and they will never have reason not to.
Hampton, what's your take on this?
Let's not kid ourselves. Demanding that the Redskins change their name won't help indigenous people a bit. Changing the Redskins into Red Shirts or Red Dogs won't fight alcoholism or create jobs on the reservation—any more than changing the NBA's Bullets into Wizards had the slightest impact on gun violence. Anyone who cares about the plight of Native Americans can help in infinitely more substantial ways. Advocating mascot name-changes is just cheap moral preening. It requires no effort, and will accomplish nothing beyond offering a totally undeserved sense of moral superiority.
You guys aren't alone, of course. Newspapers across the country now refuse to print the word "Redskins." That includes, absurdly, my hometown Kansas City Star—a publication making gobs of money off the Chiefs who play at Arrowhead. The Star's jaw-dropping hypocrisy, though, is typical. Advocates for these name changes are rarely interested in making even the tiniest personal sacrifice for their supposedly important cause. After all, what are you two willing to do? Are you planning to boycott the Redskins' sponsors, renouncing all Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch products, and refusing to send packages via FedEx? Would you turn down free tickets to a Redskins' game as a form of protest? Perhaps you will refuse to draft any Redskins for your fantasy team to show everyone in the league how much you care. No? Then you have a lot of nerve preaching to Dan Snyder about how to spend his money righteously.
The name "Redskins" wasn't chosen because it was a racist slur—any more than Notre Dame picked a pugnacious, red-nosed, ginger-haired Leprechaun because they wanted to offend Irish people. The name "Redskins" was picked in part to honor Hall of Fame coach William "Lone Star" Dietz. He claimed that his mother was Sioux, but could have lied to avoid service in World War I. That, folks, is the simple historical fact, and it encapsulates the fraught, often convoluted and morally ambiguous truth about team mascots.
Let me tell you about the town of Osceola, Missouri. The place once had a population of 2,500. But that was before soldiers invaded, spending a couple of days burning, looting, and murdering. When the soldiers finally left, only 200 citizens remained. Most of Osceola was burned to the ground.
Want to know who did the killing? Jayhawks. Specifically, it was Sen. Jim Lane and the "Jayhawkers" of his Kansas Brigade. Will you soon be demanding that KU change its mascot? Don't laugh. Someone already complained.
Obviously the meaning of "Redskins" has changed over the decades. Ethnic stereotypes are no longer thought funny. The word is now a slur. Fine, let's lose it. Change the Chiefs, too. As Jerry Seinfeld said, fans basically root for laundry.
Just tell me where the policing ends? If a nickname like the Fighting Illini is wrong, than what makes the state name of Illinois any less offensive? Or the name Kansas, which was derived from the Kanza people. What about my high school, Shawnee Mission East—named in honor of Christian missionaries who came to this part of the world so they could convert the local Shawnee. For that matter, it won't be long before some Muslim anti-defamation group quite accurately protests that the Holy Cross Crusaders' nickname glorifies medieval savagery in the name of a Christian War on Islam. Just how absurdly far will we go to avoid offending anyone, ever? Will someone censor every use of the word "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn? Oh. Wait... Someone already did.
Yes, words change meaning, teams change mascots. The Orangemen become the Orange, and life goes on. Whatever. Make the Redskins change their name. All you'll be doing is making Dan Snyder pay to assuage your own guilt. But don't pretend that calling for a mascot name change is brave or hard. Don't act like you are truly helping Native Americans, or ever dream that changing the name of a football team could in any way compensate for this nation's sins towards indigenous peoples. That notion is far more insulting than any racially charged team name ever could be.