As an Italian-American, I wouldn’t appreciate it if a sports team was nicknamed the Dagos or Wops. So it’s understandable why a Native American demands that the NFL’s longstanding Washington team not be called the Redskins here in the smarter, introspective 21st century. Yet I also know, as an Italian-American, that being described as a Dago or a Wop is a highly offensive slur specifically intended to ridicule and disparage.
Uttering the nickname “Redskins” on a football Sunday, while something we should be intellectually above, doesn’t strike me as a slur meant to derogate the Native American community. Rather, it’s a piece of jargon/nomenclature we’ve carried over for too many decades — mindlessly, needlessly, foolishly — as a function of a dim-witted and unsophisticated sports society. Yes, the term Redskin has been used in the bigger world through time as a weapon, undeniably hurtful and contemptuous. But the way it is used today by a TV sportscaster — or by a member of the Dallas Cowboys, or by even the most Washington-loathful fan of the New York Giants or Philadelphia Eagles — isn’t targeted against an entire race. None of those people care enough about the issue to mean harm, which is sad in itself but the truth. Anyone who says “Redskins” really isn’t giving the term a second thought other than knowing it’s the team quarterbacked by Robert Griffin III, coached by Mike Shanahan, owned by Daniel Snyder, supported by an overzealous fan base and represented in the past by notables of all shapes, sizes and races, including Joe Gibbs, Darrell Green, John Riggins, Sonny Jurgensen, Doug Williams, the beloved Hogs, Joe Theismann and a coach of debatably part-Sioux ancestry named Lone Star Dietz, in whose honor the Redskins were named in the 1930s by a brazenly racist owner named George Preston Marshall.
The issue is whether it’s time to give the nickname that second thought … and a third and a fourth thought … basically, significantly more attention than we have been giving it. The answer: Of course, it’s always time. We should continue to discuss the issue with great detail and depth, first and foremost to correct the horrific precedent established decades ago. Marshall marketed his franchise as racist in the segregated Confederate South. He supported the NFL’s original color barrier, and even long after the first black was allowed to play in the league in 1946, the Redskins didn’t break their own color line until 1962 — and only then after pressure from the John F. Kennedy administration. In a league that now demands and promotes diversity, it’s hypocritical if you’re not at least regularly addressing the topic.
But like anything else in a multi-billion-dollar kingdom, it isn’t as simple as swapping out Redskins for Monuments. First, not all Native Americans view the nickname as derogatory. Some see the pride of fans who wear the burgundy-and-gold Redskins jersey, belt out the “Hail to the Redskins” fight song, cheer the Washington Redskins Marching Band — and see it all as a tribute to their ancestors. Think about it: Why would a sports owner in 2013, even if he happened to be a revolting racist, want to devalue his franchise by ridiculing a group associated with his team nickname? According to Snyder, every survey commissioned by the franchise indicates an overwhelming sentiment not to change the name; indeed, a recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed that nearly four in five Americans don’t think a name change is necessary, with only 11 percent adamantly believing that “Redskins” should be dumped. One might argue that the objections of 11 percent — or just one person — is enough justification to change the name, particularly when we’ve seen a university such as Miami of Ohio take the correct path and change “Redskins” to “Redhawks.” I’m here to say the groundswell isn’t strong enough for a name swap.
Not that Snyder is handling the issue with the proper sensitivity. Out of nowhere earlier this year, as if wanting to bury a subject that a Washington Redskins owner should embrace and never allow to die, he told USA Today in his most definitive comments to date, “We will never change the name of the team. As a lifelong Redskins fan, I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.”
In case he wasn’t heard the first time, Snyder said, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
THAT IS NOT GOING TO MAKE DISSENTERS GO AWAY, DAN.
NOR SHOULD THEY, FOR ANY REASON, PARTICULARLY YOUR OWN BUSINESS INTERESTS SUCH AS NICKNAME FAMILIARITY AND BRAND EQUITY, WHICH THEY DON’T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT.
It’s worth noting, though, that the NFL commissioner isn’t as firmly behind Snyder with his public statements as he once was. When the Congressional Native American Caucus was pushing for a name change earlier this year, Roger Goodell replied, “For the team’s millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America’s most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”
But the other day, he suddenly was more even-handed. Maybe it had to do with the venue — he was a guest on a Washington radio station. Maybe it didn’t. “I grew up in Washington,” said Goodell, who was raised in the District of Columbia before his teen years. “The Colts were my team early on, and then I became a Redskins fan. So I know the team name is part of their history and tradition, and that’s something that’s important to the Redskins fans. And I think what we have to do though is we have to listen. If one person’s offended, we have to listen. And ultimately, it is Dan’s decision. But it is something that I want all of us to go out and make sure we’re listening to our fans, listening to people who have a different view, and making sure that we continue to do what’s right to make sure that team represents the strong tradition that it has for so many years.”
When one of the hosts mentioned a decision by promiment football writer Peter King not to use “Redskins” on his new Web site, Goodell softened even more. “Well, you know, we’re always sensitive to what impacts the league in general, and that includes our 32 teams, and making sure that we’re doing what’s right here,” he told the station. “And that’s why I think, again, we have to do everything that’s necessary to make sure that we’re representing the franchise in a positive way, and that rich history and tradition. And that if we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure that we’re doing the right things to try to address that.”
Spoken like a true politician? Well, it is a political issue. And the politics also involve media people who may or may not be purposely drawing attention to themselves with grandstanding views. I’m not accusing King of this; he’s too well thought-out. But I’ve seen others say or write, “I’m not using `Redskins’ anymore in my copy.” And i suspect they’re doing it more for eyeballs and traffic than out of any deep concern for Native American sensitivities.
Context is everything in this matter. When Philadelphia Eagles receiver Riley Cooper fired the racial epithet that went viral, it was meant to hurt. When we mention that the Redskins and Packers are playing a game in Green Bay, it is not meant to hurt.
It’s just mindlessness.