“Obviously wrong, insensitive, and unacceptable.”
That was NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, talking to ESPN about the recent “N” bomb dropped by Eagles WR Riley Cooper. Earlier in the offseason, the NFL and the Redskins responded to public pressure about the Washington team name by declaring that the word “Redskins” is not offensive.
What’s in a name?
Native American nicknames in sports and the caricatured logos that often accompany them have long been the subject of lawsuits and sports-media theater, with many teams opting to change their name (like St. John’s Redmen to Red Storm in the mid-90s), and there’s been some recent mounting pressure from both Congress and the media for Washington owner Daniel Snyder to consider changing the name.
This offseason around the beltway has been mostly about RGKnee and sports columnists tipping toes and/or jumping head first into the name debate. Legendary former Redskins players Art Monk and Darrell Green, two of the greatest and most beloved players to ever rock the Burgundy & Gold, publicly stated Washington should “strongly consider” a name change. Snyder had already issued his now-infamous PUT IT IN ALL CAPS missive stating he will NEVER change the name. (But he WILL yell at you through text.)
Do I think Daniel Snyder is a racist? Not necessarily, he’s just seen the world through Burgundy & Gold glasses his whole life and to him and many fans, the word “Redskins” simply means the Washington Pro Football team. And this isn’t about what Snyder’s intentions are, and why noted racist and original owner George Preston Marshall would name his team the “Redskins.” The fact that Washington was the last NFL franchise to integrate black players is just one more subplot that, while worth noting, has little bearing on the current debate about the offensive nickname.
Of course there was the anti-PC backlash. White, non-Native sports columnists were accused of misguided “white guilt” or wanting to “get the government involved where it doesn’t belong” in some “manufactured controversy” that was simply a case of “political correctness out of control.”
There have also been some pretty sensible arguments against changing the name of the Washington NFL team. My former journalism teacher, who made a career “coaching” high school newspapers to annual Best in State accolades in the football-frenzied DC-area suburbs of Maryland, got into a spirited debate with me about the name.
“There are high school football teams on reservations that have the Redskins as their team name,” he noted. “Was that name foisted on them by someone? And if yes, why was it not changed? The name Redskin is not derogatory when applied to the DC NFL team: the term has transcended its other meanings and become a positive and honored name. Should Notre Dame change its Fighting Irish mascot because it makes my ancestors out to be quarrelsome and aggressive?”
He added: “People should be offended by teams named Pirates or Buccaneers or Vikings–historical figures known for pillaging, murder, and rape–but no one seems upset by those names.”
Interesting points to consider. But all this… “stuff” is on the peripheral of the fact that “Redskins” was in fact used as a derogatory slur, based on skin color, against a minority people (whom, oh by the way, we just happened to have killed and stole this great land from). Now, is it exactly the same and/or as culturally…. prevalent, for lack of better word, than “Nigger”? No, it’s different. But that difference is irrelevant to whether or not a sports team should use the word “Redskins” in 2013 and beyond.
And yes, I wrote out the whole word Nigger, instead of typing “N*****” or “N-word” because this is also about Freedom of Speech, and the much blurrier lines and unwritten rules on where we set our boundaries as a society. We can NOT show most of Janet Jackson’s tit (with nipple covered) for a split second during the Super Bowl halftime show, but we can show other barely covered tits if they are in conjunction with an Official Beer Sponsor of the NFL or a GoDaddy.com advertisement during another Super Bowl.
[If you are white and still can't get over the idea that black dudes (“rappers” AND regular folk) can say “What up my nigga?” as a term of endearment, but you'd get your ass kicked if you called a black person the same thing... you probably still complain about things like Black History Month or wonder why there's no channel called White Entertainment Television. And if you think Riley Cooper's mistake was “forgetting that there's always cameras around,” you're really missing the point.]
So there’s no place in the NFL for a white player to be dropping N-bombs, according to the NFL, and yet Snyder and the league claim that “Redskins” is a tribute and not intended to be offensive.
If I refer to the Washington owner as “That Kike Dan Snyder” in future columns, but I claim it’s actually a “tribute,” or say I’m just kidding and don’t mean to offend and I’m just exercising my Freedom of Speech to use a little shock value to prove a point… is THAT cool? Would it be okay if I were also Jewish? Could I justify it if I cited a poll showing that a majority of Jewish Redskins fans weren’t offended? Would it be okay since, gosh, no one ever really uses that old term any more? It’s not like I’m selling shirts with that on it. Then again we’re talking about a guy who sued the DC City Paper for printing facts accompanied by an illustrated version of Snyder with devil horns.
But I’d never call Snyder that name. And Riley Cooper shouldn’t be throwing around the N-word. Somewhere within the gray area, there is a line where we all say, “Nah, that’s not cool.”
If you peel away enough layers, or keep adding more layers to the debate, it might feel more confusing. But the issue itself is actually quite simple. The Washington pro football team should write a new chapter of their storied history by retiring the old name.
As for what that new name should be… let’s tackle that another day.