UPDATE – June 18, 2014: ***[In light of the 50 Senate Democrats who recently sent a letter to the National Football League and demanded the Washington Redskins football team change its name, as well as the U.S. Patent Office having just cancelled the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration (by calling the team’s name “disparaging”), we’ve updated the post below accordingly…]***
The feelings that a sports team’s fans have about their team’s nickname/logo are incredibly strong, maybe more so today than even in years past. In the old days and in every sport, plenty of athletes would spend their entire careers with one team, whereas that’s incredibly rare now. So when we’re rooting for a team, it may consist of almost entirely new personnel from one year to the next.
THIS makes the team nickname one of the only consistent aspects with which to identify. We end up rooting for an icon and an image, whether it’s a Giant, a Viking, a Bruin, or a King.
And that’s why this brouhaha over the Washington Redskins’ nickname has folks so thoroughly steamed.
Although it’s been a minor cause célèbre for years, it picked up some major momentum back in March, when The Non-Disparagement of American Indians in Trademark Registrations Act of 2013 was co-sponsored by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Ever since, the nation’s Political Correctness Establishment has rallied around this as only it can, with the websites Mother Jones, Slate, The New Republic and even Sports Illustrated’s Peter King all vowing to stop using the term “Redskin” when referring to the team.
Despite such histrionics, the entire Redskins’ controversy is based on a false premise: namely, that the term is comparable to the N-word as a horrific pejorative.
Well, it’s not.
According to Smithsonian historian Ives Goddard, early historical records indicate that “Redskin” was used as a self-identifier by Native Americans to differentiate between the two races. Goddard found that the first use of the word “redskin” came in 1769, in negotiations between the Piankashaws and Col. John Wilkins.
Throughout the 1800s, the word was frequently used by Native Americans as they negotiated with the French and later the Americans. The phrase gained widespread usage among whites when James Fenimore Cooper used it in his 1823 novel The Pioneers. In the book, Cooper has a dying Indian character lament, “There will soon be no red-skin in the country.
The Pioneers and other books by Cooper were largely seen as sympathetic toward Native Americans and their struggles in the 1800s.”
It wasn’t until later that “Redskin” was used in an insulting manner, but by that time, so was the term “Indian”. This is largely a distinction without a difference. Certainly the NCAA has already come to this conclusion, as they’ve been banning the use of American Indian nicknames for its colleges for ages. Let’s not kid ourselves: if successful in D.C., the PC crowd will be coming after the sports teams in Cleveland, Kansas City and Chicago next, just as surely as an extra point attempt follows a touchdown.
Actually, that battle has already begun.
Furthermore, look at the fans of this team: do THEY look at the nickname as an insult? Hardly. They look at the Native American imagery as a symbol of pride, strength and distinction: the same way that the term was originally intended and used.
People are identifying WITH the image, not disparaging OF it. They’re exultant, not insulting.
Ironically, Sports Illustrated seemed to understand this not that long ago. Back in 2002, they ran a major story called “The Indian Wars“ which discussed the topic of Indian nicknames in sports.
One section in particular caught my eye:
Asked if they were offended by the name Redskins, 75% of Native American respondents in SI’s poll said they were not, and even on reservations, where Native American culture and influence are perhaps felt most intensely, 62% said they weren’t offended.
Overall, 69% of Native American respondents—and 57% of those living on reservations—feel it’s O.K. for the Washington Redskins to continue using the name. “I like the name Redskins,” says Mark Timentwa, 50, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington State who lives on the tribes’ reservation. “A few elders find it offensive, but my mother loves the Redskins.“
And in the most recent poll taken on this issue, the results bore this out even more starkly:
“…A poll of American Indians found that an overwhelming majority of them are not bothered by the name of the Washington Redskins. Only 9% of those polled said the name of the NFL team is “offensive,” while 90% said it’s acceptable, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey…”
Yet as Rick Reilly wrote in ESPN, the actual opinion of Native Americans apparently isn’t at issue here:
“…White America has spoken. You aren’t offended, so we’ll be offended for you…”
Which brings us all the way back to the central question: shouldn’t it be up to the team and their fans what they choose to be called?
Obviously, if it proves too offensive to someone(s), they’ll eventually lose popularity, and then revenue …and they’ll likely change their name THEN, lickity-split.
But if we are truly a free country (an increasingly disputed notion), this shouldn’t even be an issue.
Eventually, the Redskins organization may wilt under this assault and decide to change the club’s name to something more acceptably passive, such as the Washington Handmaidens or the D.C. Milquetoasts. There’ll be plenty of self-congratulatory harumphing all around, and life will go on.
But when someone starts complaining that your team needs to change its name because it’s insensitive to people who suffer from gigantism, or glorifies a mass murderer of bison, don’t say we didn’t warn you.