Slate, Mother Jones, and several other news outlets made waves this summer when they decided to ban the use of the word "Redskins" when referring to the NFL Washington team. But that "ban" has had the exact opposite effect – each site is referring to the name more now than it ever did before.
Slate editor David Plotz provided the emphatic line back in August: "This is the last Slate article that will refer to the Washington NFL team as the Redskins." On Wednesday, Slate published a thorough piece on the etymology of the word "redskin," from its origins as a Native American word to its use now as an offensive term. The story is a well-researched, illuminating explainer on the way language changes over time. The NFL team is referred to as just "Washington." But, obviously, it would be impossible to write about the origin of a word without using that word, and the article includes "redskin" 21 times. Slate's ban on the team name helped stir up the same interest in the word that led to Wednesday's story.
When Slate's ban was announced, The Wire noted that it would make reporting on the name controversy difficult. That's why today's article had to include the word so many times to make sense; people know the f-word, c-word, and n-word, but "redskins" isn't even the first offensive r-word that comes to mind.
This is not to pick on Slate as hypocritical, but to show that covering the Redskins controversy without using the word is difficult. Mother Jones followed Slate's lead and did away with using the name, too. At the time, the magazine wrote that it would instead use "'Washington' or 'Washington's pro football team' or, if we get sassy, 'the Washington [Redacted].'" It did leave some leeway, though.
"There is a chance, however, that the term will end up back on our pages. We certainly won't strike it from a quote. And if we end up writing a post or two about how Snyder still hasn't changed the name, despite increasing scrutiny, we reserve the right to use it again—if only to highlight how incredibly out-of-touch and backward the Washington football team's owner truly is."
The Wire noted then that MoJo had referred to the "Redskins" just three times in three years before its decision to ban the word. But instead of writing an occasional "post or two," the site has taken up the name controversy as a regular news topic, and has written nine pieces with the word "Redskins" included. All show the team name in a negative light, ranging from "That Time Nazis Marched to 'Keep Redskins White'" to "Are Coke and FedEx Worried About Sponsoring the Redskins?" For Mother Jones, banning the name only increased its use.
A look at the Richmond Free Press shows the problem with totally avoiding the name. After "expunging" (PDF) Redskins from its pages in October, the weekly newspaper has covered several stories of efforts to get rid of the team name. "Protesters rally for name change," one front-page headline read. What name would that be, exactly? In this case, not using Redskins created an unappealing headline that couldn't properly explain the story without backtracking on its name ban.
Until Washington does change its name, these sites will have to balance informing the reader and enforcing their style guides. But as owner Dan Snyder said, that change will come approximately "NEVER – you can use caps." As the debate over the name inevitably grows louder and louder, sites like Slate and Mother Jones will only write about the moniker more and more. Far more, in fact, than they ever did before their ban.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.