The Washington Football Team Should Change Its Name

In my last blog article, I derided the effectiveness of political commercials. Today, I’d like to perform a 180 and draw attention to a particularly effective commercial that campaigns for change. The commercial is just as powerful with what is unsaid as what is spoken aloud.

The overwhelmingly-sensible message is that the Washington NFL team should change its name from the Redskins. Yesterday, a government office revoked the patent on the name, but it seems to be more symbolic than effective. Daniel Snyder, the owner of the team, has dug himself a deep trench and is prepared to fight for the right to use the slur indefinitely. In fact, the team has already released a press release declaring, “…today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo. We are confident we will prevail once again.” What a lousy motive for which to desire victory. It seems repugnant to defend the use of a racial slur so obstinately.

To some degree, I understand why Snyder might be so stubborn. The first reaction to a change in tradition is usually one of adamant rejection. As a teen, I attended a high school, Thornton Fractional South H.S. in Lansing, Illinois, whose sports teams were referred to as the Rebels. Veteran news reporter Harry Smith and outfielder-extraordinaire Curtis Granderson also attended T.F. South. Our mascot was a cartoonish southern civil war soldier that proudly waved a saber and the confederate flag. Our “neighbors to the north” didn’t exactly participate in the civil war theme, since they were the T. F. North Stars, but I recall as a student how much I loved the name and logo of our team. Being a young, uneducated, naïve teen, I didn’t understand how it might be offensive to some in the community. I remember resisting the idea of a change of the team’s name or logo, simply because I thought it was a cool image and that’s what I was accustomed to. Years later, the team name remains the same, but the logo has changed along with removal of the confederate flag. As an adult, I better understand why the Southern Civil War stigma should have been changed (especially considering the racial segregation I experienced at the school). I haven’t forgotten that my first reaction was, “Why do we have to change the name? It’s been that way for years. Just let it be.”

While I campaign for a change for the Washington football team, I know I’d probably change my tune if the intense national focus narrowed in on the Chicago Blackhawks to change their name and logo…and it’s entirely possible that a precedent might be created if Washington does change its name. However, I will note that there are semantic differences between the two. The Sauk American Indian tribe has historic roots in the Midwest. A leader of the Sauk tribe was named Black Hawk (some history links here and here). I lived for a time in Sauk Village, Illinois, a southern suburb of Chicago, along the historic Sauk Trail that still can be traced through Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan (including Michigan City, Indiana, where I currently reside). I learned as a boy about the rich history of Native Americans growing up on the South Side of Chicago, and many of the cities and townships are named in remembrance of the area’s Native American history (including Calumet Township, where I’ve also lived). I’m especially proud to state that much impetus to learn about the history of the local Native American comes from recognizing that our hockey team honors the history; it is not meant to be mocking, as the Washington football team’s moniker is. I think there is an etymological and historical difference between the designations of Blackhawk versus Redskin, as this article contends.

Any name that draws attention to the color of one’s skin is offensive. Could we imagine a sports team with the name of “Whiteskin” or “Blackskin” or “Brownskin?”…Hell, even “Pinkskins” or “Purpleskins” or “Plaidskins” would raise eyebrows. We may have become too comfortable as sports fans using the term “Redskin,” and comfortable tradition does not justify retaining the offensive name.

Daniel Snyder strikes me as an incredibly stubborn man. I know he is capable of change, however. He certainly changed his tactics as owner once he realized that throwing large contracts at big-name players, like Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, and Albert Haynesworth, wasn’t the best method for creating a winning NFL team. Since the name-change depends wholly on Daniel Snyder’s concession, it will be difficult to convince one individual who has so firmly staked his argumentative position. There’s plenty of incentive monetarily for him to consider a name change: selling merchandise with a new designation, theme, and logo would easily profit a team that already has such a large fan base. There’s also a standard in Washington, D.C., for changing a name for politically-sensitive reasons: The Washington Bullets became the Washington Wizards to stop glorifying the gun-violence that overwhelmed the capitol of the United States of America (although, there are those who want to change the name back to the Bullets). There’s further precedent to change the Washington football team’s name when you consider the racist history of the team: they were the last NFL team to allow black players on the squad, and as recently as 1961, the team’s more-racist-than-Donald-Sterling owner, George Preston Marshall, fought to retain an all-white squad despite public pressure to the contrary…a startling detail because history seems to be repeating itself with a Washington football owner in 2014 (though Snyder seems to be less cognitively racist than Marshall…as I’ve already mentioned, most of us have become comfortable with the slur-word Redskin, but that doesn’t mean that uttering it does not contribute to continued racism).

This is an opportunity for one man, Daniel Snyder, to display dignity to an American community that looks to continue a healing process. America’s discriminatory history to certain sects of the public is well-established, and the Native American population has plenty of beef when it comes to American discrimination. It’s my hope and prayer that Daniel Snyder has a personal epiphany and contritely changes his mind, because it seems unlikely that the mounting public pressure is affecting his moral compass. Changing the name of his football team is the right thing to do, and it would be another step forward for reparation, unity, and camaraderie in this country. It just depends on one man to be a good man, not a stubbornly selfish man who will fight tooth-and-nail against public opinion…just because he can. It depends on Daniel Snyder to change his mind.

Seek enlightenment, Mr. Snyder, and stop obsessing over tradition. Many of the traditions in this country need reassessment. The word Redskin needs to be removed from a great national pastime…and right soon.

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Scott C. Guffey
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