Should the Redskins Change Their Name?

washington_redskins_helmet-10153When I was growing up (and still to this day), my entire extended family were Washington Redskins fans. Big fans. Everyone follows the team as closely as possible, and they went to a lot of games. I personally root for the 49ers, but I’m always happy to see the Redskins do well.

Recently, though, it has come to light in the public eye that the term “redskin” is actually quite derogatory toward Native Americans. In all likelihood, Native Americans have been pointing that out to the NFL for years, but the movement seems to be gaining momentum the last few years.

At this point I think it’s hard to deny that “redskin” is a derogatory term. I don’t know exactly where it falls in the spectrum of racial slurs, but I would guess that it isn’t too far off from the n-word. The term apparently has its roots in what Native Americans called themselves, but over time it became an ethnic slur.

Some might say that people are too sensitive these days, but I think that’s missing the point. I’m not easily offended by much at all, but we’re talking an pretty bad ethnic slur here. Knowing what we know today, would anyone name a team the “Redskins?” Not a chance.

What should the Washington Redskins do? They’ve talked about how it could cost them millions to rebrand, and they’re right. It would be expensive. But teams also sell a lot of jerseys when they change their team colors, name, or location. The team could treat this as an opportunity instead of a sacrifice.

Interestingly, in the same article I linked to above, the author points out that the team’s fight song used to include the line “Fight for old Dixie” (referring to the Confederacy, where slavery was legal), but they changed it to “Fight for old DC” in 1959.

As someone who supports the Washington Redskins, there’s no question in my mind that the right thing to do would be to change the name.

What do you think?


8 Responses to “Should the Redskins Change Their Name?”

  1. Emma says:

    As someone who grew up in Champaign and then went to University of Illinois during the Chief Illini turmoil, I can say that there’s life on the other side.

    Quick lowdown: I truly believe that most people took the idea of our symbol of Chief Illiniwek very seriously; he was revered and respected and each person who represented him went and spent time on a reservation and trained with a tribe to represent their traditions at the school. I am not doubting the intent or sincerity.

    However, when someone goes out on the field of a public institution and performs a religious ceremony, dance, etc, they are violating one of the most basic tenets of this country – separation of church and state. And so, intention aside, I never understood how it was a good idea, just like if someone went out and performed a baptism on the field at halftime, it would be preposterous.

    I don’t know if the Redskins are going religious, nor do I know if Notre Dame has a bunch of Irish lads beating each other up on the field, but I agree that it’s time to retire stereotype-based names and move on, regardless of intent. You can mean well and still reinforce a stereotype or offend someone. Let’s just be better.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Emma: Very, very well said. Before I wrote this post, I was talking to someone about the subject, and they mentioned other teams named after Native Americans, like the Florida State Seminoles. I wasn’t quite sure what to think about that, since Seminoles is a tribe name, not a derogatory term. The person pointed out that people at that school often dance in the stands with a tomahawk chop, which, even though it’s not an official ceremony, could be offensive too.

  2. Gabby says:

    Is this considered cyber bullying of Dan Snyder?

  3. JT says:

    I don’t have time to write a short response, so please forgive the long one.

    I personally don’t see the Redskins name as derogatory. The light cast upon the name isn’t one of savagery, barbarism, blood-thirst, mindlessness or a host of other negative attributes, but rather those attributes the football franchise wishes to associate to itself – cunning, bravery, skill, and those attributes that comprise a worthy opponent. Perhaps the art, mascots, regalia, etc are derogatory if they impose a negative stereotype or otherwise lampoon Native American culture.

    One name I do think derogatory is that of the Cleveland Browns. The team was originally named the “Brown Bombers”, a reference to boxer Joe Louis (the original “Brown Bomber”) for the color of his skin. It’s the wrong nickname to use even if Louis himself approved of it – perhaps something like “The Butterfly Bees” after Muhammed Ali.

    I do think it would be ironic if a team were to be named “Integrated Blacks and Whites”, which is extremely accurate but probably too racially-acute to be acceptable to American ears.

    More broadly, though, I don’t think people have a right to not be offended. I don’t believe in trying to limit speech on the basis of what causes offense because it is that speech which is unpopular that needs protection in first place. Also it seems too often that the lens through which offense is judged seems to be skewed to begin with – case in point, the attempt to hold a Satanic Black Mass on the campus of Harvard. This is something which, by definition, mocks a religious rite, but when Catholics held a protest and prayer vigil they were publicly criticized for being intolerant.

    That said, I think it’s the “right” thing to do for teams to consider changing their names with an eye on the sensitivity of their fan base, and that rightness comes from the perspective of what obligation is owed the club, the owners, the players and – possibly most importantly – the fans. But even then there ought to be caution. Merely because someone complains doesn’t mean they represent the majority view. As Emma pointed out, Chief Illiniwek is a revered figure. If the teams find that their own fans favor keeping the current name, that should be the rule. It seems a betrayal to be cowed by demands that come from outside those who have an interest in the team, in particular because the club is a private organization.

    We should also be careful not to jettison the sense of pride or identity that comes with certain names, and organizations are generally good at putting forward their reasons when criticized. The Catholic organization, Knights of Columbus, has been criticized for invoking the patronage of a man, Christopher Columbus, who brought considerable misery to Native Americans. K of C, in response, calls out those attributes they laud in him, namely faith, a sense of duty and a spirit of adventure. There is a sense of shared identity between many Minnesotans and the Vikings, which is absolutely an ethnic team name. So I think a change may be considered but should not be automatic.

    Consider the New Zealand All-Blacks, who perform a Maori war dance prior to their rugby matches. I doubt that such a tradition would be welcomed culturally in the United States, with the particular irony that the descendants of those who conquered the Maori and assimilated their culture are the ones performing the dance. However their own fans, to whom they owe far more than the cultural sensitivities of Americans, love the tradition, and a search for commentary on “All-Black haka” and “unfair” reveals a list of questions as to whether the dance itself gives an unfair on-field advantage through sheer INTIMIDATION.

    I’m not sure the recent Redskins controversy represents a majority so much as those opinions that are merely more vocal than others. Sports Illustrated conducted a survey of Native Americans in 2002 and found that 4 in 5 favored keeping the team names, although 12 years later those numbers have probably changed somewhat as cultural sensitivity and correct use of terms has become more prominent. Maybe it began in 2013 with a push by the American Psychiatric Association to have teams with names that, according to the APA, were disparaging change them. Most of us caught attention when the Patent office rejected the Redskins’ team name as being offensive, and cancelled their registration. This was in July and was in response to petitions by five Native Americans (who have since been sued by the Redskins owners). Then Congress, having resolved all issues pertaining to budget and immigration, began to push for the NFL to compel owners to change team names. Donald Sterling’s racist and misogynistic rant was cited as a contributing factor as well.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      JT: It was interesting to see where you went with this entry, particular after starting off by saying, “I personally don’t see the Redskins name as derogatory.” After reading that, I thought, “As far as I know, you’re not Native American, so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t find it derogatory–what matters is what they think and feel about it.”

      But you’re right–from the stats I’ve seen, it appears that a majority of Native Americans aren’t offended by the term.

      You give some good examples in this post about other terms that continue to be used (like Knights of Columbus), but those aren’t derogatory terms. That’s just someone’s name.

      • Orianna says:

        I politely disagree. We won’t know for sure how many find it offensive. It’s not something that we would say. I am not a Native North American but I am a native Mayan and Caribbean Indian. As to the comparison to the Cleveland Browns, of which my best friend is a fan, well, it’s pretty much the same argument.

      • JT says:

        I’m actually Cherokee on my mother’s side. I don’t know how much – at most 1/8th but more likely 1/16th. I don’t maintain tribal affiliation because my great-grandfather did not, to my knowledge, and my grandmother grew up on naval bases rather than on tribal or BIA lands. So it’s something I never pursued.

        I suppose we could have a larger discussion about where offense counts. If it’s not Native Americans but whites who take offense at the Redskins name, does that count any more or less? If a group in D.C. takes offense at the Vikings name, but those in Minnesota do not, does the team owe anything to those in D.C. who petition for the change?

        Maybe the safest route, the path of least offense, is to eliminate ethnic team names and mascots altogether. Animals, inanimate objects, demonyms. But demonyms can be problematic – if Chief Illiniwek is offensive, is it offensive to also call the team “The Illini” because the state name is the francofied version of the tribal confederacy that had lived there?

  4. […] way, and I think this commentary explains it well from the perspective of one Native American). I last brought up this topic in 2014, at which time I said, “there’s no question in my mind that the right thing to do would be […]

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