What’s in a Name?

Robert Griffin III

By Steven Brenner.

This past Sunday, I enjoyed watching my Washington Redskins beat the Chicago Bears.  Robert Griffin III had his best performance of the season, Alfred Morris and Roy Helu were strong in the backfield, and despite a resilient Bears team, we won 45-41. Yet I had a bad feeling about my team before, during, and in the time after the game. I’ve actually had it the entire season. As much as I love my team, I find myself horribly conflicted about cheering for them because of their name. Redskins. Even thinking about it makes me cringe now.

If the government shutdown is the talk of the town in Washington, the possibility of changing the name “Redskins” is the talk of the town in D.C. (See my last column if you’re unclear on the distinction). There have always been objections to the name based on the fact that it is offensive to Native Americans, but more and more people have voiced these sentiments recently. The online publication Slate announced that it would no longer use the term “Redskins” when discussing the team. When President Obama was asked about the issue, he replied that he would “think about changing” the name.  Countless Native American and anti-defamation interest groups have begun to rally in support of changing the team’s name.

The battle lines are being drawn today in D.C. You are either pro- or anti- “name change.” I have friends on both sides, people who I respect and admire personally and intellectually. But I have to draw a line in the sand. We have to lose the name “Redskins.” There’s no way around it. The name is a derogatory racial slur. It’s offensive to Native Americans, and it’s offensive to people who are opposed to any form of discrimination. We would not be having this discussion if the group in question were bigger or had more lobbying power. If the name were offensive to African-Americans, Jews, Hispanics, or almost any other ethnic or racial group, we probably would have changed it 30 or 40 years ago. 

The ultimate fate of the name lies with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, a local business mogul who is probably the most hated man in D.C. Ever since he bought the team in 1999, Snyder’s business and football decisions have enraged fans. He raised ticket prices to astronomical levels. He has made it impossible to drive or park at games efficiently. On the football field, he has made a habit of trading away draft picks to bring over- the- hill big name stars, hindering the team’s long-term success. And lastly, he comes off in the public media as apathetic and indifferent to the concerns and hopes of the thousands of fans who fill up the “cheap” seats in his stadium as he and his rich buddies dine in style in a luxury box. 

Recently, Snyder wrote an open letter to fans about the name in which he laid out two main reasons for why he is opposed to changing it. First, Snyder cited 2 polls that indicate that a vast majority of Native Americans do not find the name offensive and do not think it needs to change. Second, he made the case that the name “Redskins” is essential to the pride of the team and to the pride of D.C., concluding: “I respect the opinions of those who disagree. I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn. But we cannot ignore our 81 year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country. After 81 years, the team name “Redskins” continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.” 

Snyder’s letter was laughable at best and morally bankrupt at worst. Does he really think that it’s an acceptable ethical approach to try to use polls to gauge morality? I find it kind of interesting that 90% of Native Americans aren’t offended, but 10% of Native Americans being offended is more than reason enough to change the name. Furthermore, people who aren’t Native American can be offended by the use of a racial slur. If you see racism or anti-Semitism modern culture today, do you check with your black or Jewish friends to find out if they’re offended before you decide to take issue?

As to Snyder’s second point, I can’t stand the idea that “the name ‘Redskins’ continues to hold the memories of meanings of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be…” Dan Snyder can talk all he wants about a name, but as someone whose family has lived in the D.C. area for almost 50 years, I think that this notion is utterly ridiculous.  What unifies Redskins fans of old are the memories on the field. Speaking as a newer fan, I love watching Robert Griffin III play football, and if we change the name tomorrow I will still love Robert Griffin III and all of his ‘world-class speed.’ I will still put off all my homework to cheer for my team on Sundays. I will still talk about it with my friends.  I will still celebrate that elusive fourth Superbowl. And I suspect every other Redskins fan in America would do exactly the same.

Dan Snyder and others in “Redskins Nation” seem to believe that it is past experience and memory that defines who we are as sports fans. But to me, what we strive for, in past and present, defines us as a community. More than anything, fandom is about admiration for the pursuit of excellence, past and present. We as Washington Redskins fans cheer for our team because we want them to be athletically excellent. However, we as a community of fans need to demand more than just this one form of fleeting and impermanent excellence from our team. We should require personal excellence from them in addition to good performance on the gridiron. The vast majority of ‘Skins fans that I know, pro-name-change or not, want a team that serves the community, that mentors the young men that it employs, and that treats people respectfully and honorably. But this needs to be a higher priority in the D.C. area. Dropping the name Redskins would make for a much more inclusive and accepting franchise, and if the team sees an opportunity to better its personal excellence and shrugs it off because of the way things have always been, shame on them. Moreover, shame on us as a community for letting it happen.

At the University of Mississippi, there’s a statue of James Meredith, the school’s first black student. There’s a quote on the statue: “Yes, Mississippi was. But Mississippi is.”  I think about this quote a lot. In this day and age, it can be easy to blindly revere the past because the present seems scary and messy. But we have to remember that the past was far from perfect, and people like James Meredith, who worked to improve the communities that they lived in, are what truly make the past valuable. When I’m 80 years old, I don’t want to go to a ‘Skins game and sing, “Hail to the Redskins.”  I want to go to a “Washington Whatever” game and scream about my team with pride. The memories that come with this new name will be all of the same ones that Daniel Snyder is so committed to be preserving. But there will also be the memory of the name change, of our unending commitment to make our society better. We’ll remember how we swallowed bitter pills so that we could root out vestiges of our less honorable days, striving, as our players do every day on the field, to truly be the best we can be.

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