Usually, I stay away from writing about sports. It’s not a personal aversion. I’m as much of a fan as the next guy. I just like to leave it to the bros in the sports section and their hilarious podcasts. But I’ve gotta say something about the football team in D.C. Maybe it’s because people are sick of talking about the shutdown, but the name-change controversy has showed up everywhere this week. Hell, I even saw an article on it in McGill University’s student paper.
For the uninitiated, we have a football team in this city (or just outside of it) officially called the Washington Redskins. And that’s a problem for many people, because, by definition, “redskin” is a racial slur. There’s not a dictionary out there that would tell you otherwise. For years now, activist groups, both American Indian and non, have been pushing the team to change the name, but lately the debate’s reached a fever pitch. President Obama on Tuesday said if he was the skins’ owner he would consider changing the name. Various media outlets like Washington City Paper have ceased using the name altogether. (City Paper opts for “Pigskins.”)
The team’s owner Dan Snyder fired back in recent days. “We’ll never change the name,” he told USA Today Tuesday. “It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.” Then, on Wednesday, he released a letter to the team’s fans outlining his position. His point is basically that the name has tradition and that it glorifies American Indians instead of insulting them because of the franchise’s great and storied history.
Now, that’s bullshit. Simply affiliating a slur with an organization, no matter how great, doesn’t make it not a slur. But there are better arguments out there for not changing the name. Storied ESPN columnist Rick Reilly made one a few weeks back. At the core of his argument is the fact that some American Indians don’t find the name offensive. In fact, there are predominantly American Indian schools across the West with “Redskins” as their mascot. It’s just another case of East Coast yuppies with racial sensitivity sticks up their asses.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Reilly writes, “telling the Kingston (Okla.) High School (57.7 percent Native American) Redskins that the name they’ve worn on their uniforms for 104 years has been a joke on them this whole time. Because they wear it with honor.”
And later, “For the majority of Native Americans who don’t care, we’ll care for them. For the Native Americans who haven’t asked for help, we’re glad to give it to them. Trust us. We know what’s best.”
Hate to say it, but he’s got a point. There are a lot of non-American Indian folks out there up in arms about the name, who won’t use it. They’re obviously well-intentioned. They’re trying to be allies. But they can’t make the decision to change the name. They can refuse to use it, but if there’s gonna be a change, it has to be because the population in question that requests it.
This is where Reilly’s argument breaks down. It’s not that American Indians as a whole don’t care about the name. There’s plenty who do and who care a lot. Just ask the Oneida Indian Nation, who held a press conference with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) on Tuesday to demand the name be changed. Or just look at the comments section of any American Indian media site. They’re chock full of anger, not just at this name, but at other offensive ones as well.
So, if one thing’s clear it’s that the community is somewhat divided. But they might also not care all that much. When Guardian contributor Dana Lone Hill asked around about the name on her reservation, she found “We have more important things to worry about” was the most popular response. She says this echoes sentiments she’s heard elsewhere.
But, when Lone Hill asked “What would you do if someone called you a redskin?” she writes, “The answer was the same. Everyone thought it was offensive.”
That’s the crux of the debate. The name is almost certainly offensive in a personal context to any American Indian. Even Snyder wouldn’t call Lone Hill a redskin to her face (I think). And if a name can’t pass that simple test, it’s probably got to go.
But, it’s a bridge too far for me to make that proscription. I don’t like the name, and I think a segment of the American Indian population being pissed about it is enough reason to make the change. But the opinion of a white kid like me won’t change things, nor should it. The American Indian community needs to come together and present as united a front as possible, either for change or status quo. If they can’t it’ll be true that we’re only talking about this because of shutdown fatigue.
Go see a Redskins game with Gavin at firstname.lastname@example.org