Why Debate the Redskins' Name Now?

The curiously sudden backlash to the 80-year-old nickname is just part of a larger trend: The public is paying more attention to the NFL's stance on ethical issues than ever.

It's been a trying year thus far for Washington's professional football team, and not just on the field. This past weekend, President Barack Obama told the press that he thinks the Washington Redskins should change their racially offensive name.

"If I were the owner of the team and I knew that the name of my team—even if they've had a storied history—was offending a sizable group of people, I'd think about changing it,” the president told the Associated Press. “I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”

Obama's part of a growing movement. The Kansas City Star has had a longtime policy of avoiding the word "Redskins," and the Washington City Paper, Slate, and Sports Illustrated’s Peter King began to censor themselves from using the name in the last year or so. Ten members of Congress formally asked the team to change its name in May, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged the possibility of a change in September. "If one person is offended, we have to listen,” he said. Team owner Dan Snyder, meanwhile, has said he will “never change the name.”

But opponents of the name have been around for years. In 1992, Native American activist Suzan Shown Harjo became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit aimed at changing the moniker; in 2003, a federal appeals judge ruled that the statute of limitations had run out on their ability to force the team to retitle itself. In other words, Sorry, but you should have lodged a protest back in 1967, when the team name was first trademarked. (At the time, of course, the United States was ripping Native American children away from their families and sending them to live at boarding schools and with white families, separating them from their language and culture.) And the Redskins come from a long lineage of culturally fraught names: Before they came to Washington in 1937, they were the Boston Redskins; their fans at the time also rooted for the city’s baseball team, the Boston Braves. Fans of the baseball franchise, now in Atlanta, still wave mock tomahawks and chant mock war cries inside the stadium today.

So why now? Why is the president of the United States just now calling the name “Redskins” offensive, adding his voice to a chorus that’s grown louder over the last year or so when “Redskins” has been in use for eight decades?

In part, it’s because football itself has become more politicized in the last few years. Today, more than ever, the National Football League is a place to discuss social and political issues—from race to sexuality to organized labor to public health. The league, the teams, and the players have all been at the center of a number of moral and ethical controversies; the Redskins’ name is just one of them.

To some extent, pro football has always been a stage for more than just athletic competition. Its process of integration in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, for example, was highly visible (and that’s another sore issue for the Redskins, who were the last professional football team to allow black men on its roster, and only then with urging from the federal government). Football season also perennially incites conversations about the inherent tensions surrounding a mostly white audience watching mostly black bodies on display, the persistent perception that white players are better qualified to be quarterbacks (the presumably most intellectual position on the field), the use of steroids, the relevance of labor unions in the 21st century, the way players are mythologized even after being accused of violent crimes, and the league’s chumminess with the journalists tasked with covering it.

But lately, football has been responding to electoral politics, too. NFL support for gay rights has been on the rise, be it Chris Kluwe or Brendon Ayanbadejo speaking out in favor of marriage equality or the 49ers filming an "It Gets Better" video. The Baltimore Ravens also signed on to promote Maryland's state health insurance exchange, a key part of the Obamacare health reform law, even after the league as a whole avoided partnering with the Obama administration once Republican senators sent a public warning.

The safety and health risks of the game itself have also encouraged public debate. The Redskins’ own Robert Griffin III, for instance, once heralded as perhaps the greatest quarterback in a generation and even the man likely to bring a Super Bowl win back to the nation's capital, was injured last year in a rough playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. After Griffin was knocked around and briefly pulled out of the game as a result, coach Mike Shanahan asked him if he felt he could go back in. Griffin said yes. From the first hobbled throw back, it was clear that his knee had been hurt and that he should have been sidelined. Griffin was taken down again—this time for the rest of the game. The after-effects of the ligament tear he sustained are affecting the team’s current season and will likely stay with Griffin all his life.

The game hadn’t even ended, though, before fans and bloggers leaped on Shanahan’s decision to let RG3 back in, and the ensuing days saw a spike in debates over whether team managers should let their players “play through the pain.” Some questioned and even criticized football culture’s seeming willingness to tell players to just push through, to risk the safety of their bodies in a game where grown men collide with each other with all their might. For many, RG3 has become a symbol of the acceptance of permanent harm in the sport. The sign that, in fact, that there is no safe football—or if there is, it is foreign to the NFL.

Football’s risk of concussions, similarly, has become the subject of a national conversation. Advancements in medical technology have revealed what the long-term damage from the type of repeated head trauma that is almost unavoidable in football can look like. In response, the league has tried to downplay the effects, trotting out new efforts to make better helmets earlier this year and adjusting rules on kickoffs and tackles to reduce brain trauma. But football players are developing serious brain injuries because of the way they play the game. Though the league has taken pains to present itself as leading the charge to make the game safer, it hasn’t yet shaken the perception that its leaders are perfectly willing to let players injure themselves for money. (This year, the NFL reportedly pressured ESPN to pull out of an investigative partnership with PBS’s Frontline about its handling of head injuries.)

Football has become a battleground for political and ethical debates like these because it is arguably more American than any other sport. It may not be our “national pastime,” but for decades, Americans have indicated that they prefer football over any other professional sport. Every year, the most watched events on television are football games; whether or not you watch the game, most everyone knows when Super Bowl Sunday is. When President Obama wanted a primetime address to discuss potential military strikes in Syria, he chose to do so on a Tuesday evening, even though he first announced the plan on Saturday afternoon. It's not crazy to wonder whether the leader of the free world wanted to make sure not to interrupt the first week of the football season.

In an earlier generation, the racial barrier had to be broken in professional baseball for it to shatter in America’s national consciousness. But today, no other American sport attracts the kind of attention the nation gives the NFL—and now, the NFL is becoming a place where Americans look for their values to be reflected back at them.

It's easy to politicize the team that plays before politicians. By the team’s very location, the Redskins’ FedEx Field hosts countless lobbyist excursions; lawmakers routinely hold fundraisers in the executive suites, pulling in thousands just for sharing nachos and making conversation. But “the Redskins” is just the racist name for a team thought to be ignoring players' health for profit in the center of a league fighting a losing battle against safety. The bigger debate is over whether the NFL has a responsibility to someone other than itself, and if so, to whom.