Everyone’s weighing in on the Washington Redskins’ nickname — what started in the media and at the grassroots level has sprouted upward, and has been addressed by political talking heads, NFL executives, NFL owners, and even President Obama, who remarked that “Redskins” is offensive to Native Americans. No word yet on if he thinks Apache, Black Hawk, and Iroquois helicopters or Tomahawk cruise missiles similarly offend.
Opinions are cheap — everyone’s got one. In an attention economy like ours, having an opinion is a means by which people can trade something that costs them nothing to produce (opinions) for tangible benefits (a paying career). Professional trolls Skip Bayless and Jason Whitlock are prime examples. I’m only articulating my viewpoint because I’m a nobody (for now) and Washington Post sports blogger Dan Steinberg won’t have to write an article about me. With the Nats and United out of the playoffs and basketball and hockey season yet to begin, the poor man has become consumed by Redskins nickname-mania.
I must disclose that I was born and raised in the DC area and have always been, and will always be, a fan of the National Football League team representing The District. I say this not to take a stand against the Redskins nickname, as has become so fashionable, but because I’ll support them regardless of what they’re named. Unless it’s something stupid, like Wizards.
I’ve gone back and forth on the matter and ultimately believe that the franchise should not change its nickname — but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think the “Redskins” nickname is racist. It would be disappointing to see the name changed for my own selfish, emotional reasons, but anyone who makes judgments with their heart and not their brain is a fool. The burgundy and gold is part of my identity as a Washingtonian, and the rivalry with that team in Dallas only exists in the first place because of American nostalgia for the Old West and the cowboy-Indian dynamic. The NFL recognises the importance of the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry and realigned the divisions in 2002 to keep the Cowboys in the NFC East, instead of a more geographically-appropriate team like the Carolina Panthers. Or did you think Dallas is near New York, Philly, and DC?
White people love being offended on behalf of others. When one’s racial history includes forced enslavement of one race, forced migration of another, and forced internment of yet another, it’s easy to see why many white people in the United States feel guilty for the actions of generations past. However, what matters is not what white Americans and American society in general thinks, but how Native Americans perceive the moniker. Polls vary greatly, so public opinion doesn’t offer any conclusive evidence as to whether Native Americans find “Redskins” offensive.
In a vacuum, “Redskins” sounds about as racist to me as “wetbacks”. You might be racist if you don’t see how the nickname could be construed that way. It’s a word that seems to represent the “us versus them” mentality of Manifest Destiny and the wars in pursuit thereof. However, we do not live in a vacuum, and the origins, current usage, and context of other sports nicknames does matter, and must be considered in this debate.
As ‘Skins owner Dan Snyder pointed out in a letter to season ticket holders yesterday, when the franchise was named the Redskins in 1933, the head coach and four players were Native American. When the team’s current logo was designed in 1971, it was done in concert with the Red Cloud Athletic Fund on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota — the Fund would later honour the organisation with a commemorative plaque. Stoic and dignified, the Redskins logo hardly makes a mockery of Native American heritage with a cartoonish representation like that of the Cleveland Indians, for instance.
The most dangerous aspect of any future Redskins name change is the slippery-slope precedent it would establish. I joked with Steinberg on Twitter a few weeks ago that as a 6’6″ “person of height”, I was offended by the New York and San Francisco Giants. He didn’t catch the joke, most likely because he’s been working feverishly on little other than nickname hysteria. What I tweeted him foreshadowed an inevitable trend of people speaking out against other possibly offensive nicknames.
It’s disturbing how thin everyone’s skin is in the 21st century Western world. Our society rewards people with certificates of completion and participation trophies, for god’s sake. Can teams be named after specific groups of people without invoking the woe-is-me bloviating of sports journalists? Notre Dame Fighting Irish: offensive, according to an editorial published today. The Washington Wizards probably offend Wiccans, though that most likely has to do with their performance on the court.
“Yankee” was originally a derisive term for Americans, and is still something Southerners pejoratively call people from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic — does that mean the New York Yankees should change their name? Fine, change it. Change the Cleveland Cavaliers, too; it’s insensitive to those whose ancestors backed the Roundheads. While we’re at it, the Green Bay Packers might be touchy for those who didn’t care for The Jungle. So please, America, save us from ourselves. Change the Redskins nickname, and every nickname, to something without the capacity to feel offended, like a Clipper, a Brown, or some variety of Sox. As Rick Reilly put in three weeks ago,
“Trust us. We know what’s best. We’ll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again. Kind of like a reservation.”