• Marc Johnson

What’s In a Name


Washington-Redskins

While the nation dangles one foot over the fiscal cliff and while most of the federal government remains shut down, the epicenter of American politics has yet another crisis to confront – the name of its football team.

I knew the controversy swirling around the National Football League Redskins had reached crisis proportions when Lanny Davis, the slightly oily adviser to those in trouble, started issuing statements on behalf of the mostly tone deaf Redskins’ owner. Davis, you may remember, advised Bill Clinton in the Monica days and more recently helped out a charming fellow named Laurent Gbagbo who, before he was forced from power to face charges of torturing his political enemies, was quaintly described as the Ivory Coast’s strongman. Davis told the New York Times in 2010 “controversy is what I do for a living.” Welcome to the Redskins’ beat.

Davis was engaged – controversy is what he does after all – after President Obama weighed in on whether the Washington, D.C. team should change its name. “I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things,” Obama told The Associated Press.

“These things,” of course, would be names and mascots for sports teams that at least some Native Americans (and others) find offensive. Now you might think with all that the president has on his plate from Syria to Ted Cruz, from a debt ceiling to tanking approval numbers that he would have deftly sidestepped the question of the Redskins’ name. But to his credit, even while giving half the country another reason to dislike him, Mr. Obama answered the question and a million dinner table conversations were launched.

Maureen Dowd began her column on the controversy with this: “Whenever I want to be called a detestable, insidious proselytizer of political correctness, I just bring up the idea of changing the name of the Redskins at a family dinner. What if our football team’s name weren’t a slur, I ask brightly. Wouldn’t that be nice?’

Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder once said he would “never” change the name, but in post-Lanny Davis mode he struck a quieter, if no less certain, tone. “I’ve listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name,” Snyder wrote to the Washington Post. “But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too.”

“This word is an insult. It’s mean, it’s rude, it’s impolite,” Kevin Gover, who is Native American and directs the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “We’ve noticed that other racial insults are out of bounds. . . . We wonder why it is that the word that is directed at us, that refers to us, is not similarly off-limits.”

Here’s my guess: sooner of later, given a hard push by the ever image conscious NFL leadership and with what will surely be mounting pressure from political and business folks, the Redskins will take a new name. Gover, the Native American head of the Smithsonian museum, suggested a novel name – the Washington Americans. That may catch on and actually could be a tribute to the real Americans. But in the meantime Lanny Davis and others are left to defend the Redskins by pointing out that it’s not just the D.C. football team that has a potentially offensive name. There are the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Edmonton Eskimos. Not to mention the Utah Utes, the Florida State Seminoles and the Orofino Maniacs.

Orofino, Idaho, of course, is home not only to the high school Maniacs, but an Idaho state mental hospital. There is disagreement about which came first, the nickname or the facility, but the monicker has stuck through the years and helped create some memorable headlines. My personal favorite – “Maniacs Run Wild, Kill Kamiah.” Efforts to change the name have be labeled, well, crazy. Don’t mess with my Maniacs or my Redskins. No offense intended, of course.

The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux are no long either fighting or Sioux. After prolonged controversy the school dropped the “Fighting Sioux” nickname in 2012 and currently has no name. State law actually prohibits the university from renaming its sports teams until 2015. Let me get a jump on that and suggest the North Dakota “Damn Cold Winters.”

While we’re on the subject, I don’t generally like sports teams named after animals. Too many Lions and Tigers, Badgers and Eagles. The best sports names are unique and help tell a story. The Packers, for example, or the 49ers. I like the name, but have never been a fan of the Dodgers. The Minnesota Twins make sense to me. Also the Montreal Canadiens. Not so much the transplanted from New Orleans Utah Jazz. I’m not sure jazz is even legal in Utah.

Mr. Controversy-Is-My-Business Lanny Davis says in defense of the Redskins that the name is 80 years old and, of course, is used with no disrespect. Really. I grew up near the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota and no white guy, at least one in his right mind, would call a member of the tribe what the Washington teams calls itself. The Confederate battle flag has been around for more than 150 years, but it is now widely recognized as a symbol of white supremacy. The Ole Miss Rebels banned the stars and bars from football games for just that reason. Atlanta was once home to the minor league baseball “Crackers,” but that slang put down of poor whites wouldn’t fly today.

“Come to our reservation,” says Ray Halbritter, head of the Oneida Tribe that is leading the effort to change the D.C. team name, and “get up before everybody, families with children, and start out by saying how many cute little redskin children you see in the audience. Then try and tell us that you’re honoring us with that name.” No one has taken Halbritter up on the offer according to Joe Flood who has written at Buzzfeed about Native American reaction to the name controversy.

Yes, the Redskins will eventually change their name. The only real question is how much turmoil will be created and how long it will take. After all, as Maureen Dowd says, “All you have to do is watch a Western. The term ‘redskin’ is never a compliment.”

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