Thursday, June 13, 2013

On the Undue Vitriol and Overreaction Towards the Redskins' Name

Roger Goodell’s letter to Congress defending the Redskins’ team name, saying that the name is a “unifying force that stands for courage, strength, pride, and respect," was lambasted by the media yesterday. The columnists represented at ESPN's "Around the Horn" show, as well as DC-area journalists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on "Pardon the Interruption" were especially pointed in their remarks (discussions start at roughly the 13:00 mark and the 5:00 mark, respectively). Goodell was labeled a "fool" and "gutless," and accused of not doing his homework for daring to side with the money-seeking franchise and kowtowing to the owners who hired him. Okay, that money-seeking part might actually be true. Just maybe.

The movement to change the team name was started by a letter sent from 10 members of the Congressional Native American Caucus (a collection of 100-plus members of Congress, from a House of Representatives containing 435 members) to owner Dan Snyder, urging him to change the name, citing the hateful origin of the name and the persistent caustic nature of this word to Native Americans: a "racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word’ among African Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos." That's a fair assessment.

In fact, it's extremely hard to build a case for George Preston Marshall, the owner of the franchise from 1932 to 1969, and bestower of this name. His remark, shown at the top of Dave Zirin's open letter to Dan Snyder calling for the owner to accept his era of change and rename his team, is quite disturbing. As one wanders across the Internet, Marshall's "insight" on integration and other racist statements he uttered are too disgusting to be reprinted here; Marshall is probably the least innocent party in this whole saga. However, none of that malice remains today, nor has it been present for years.

Bob Ryan's remark on Around the Horn while "selling" Goodell's letter--"What is true in 1937 is not true in 2013"--definitely has more than one meaning. Marshall's intended use of the name (he claimed it was a nod of recognition to his coach, William "Lone Star" Dietz), whether racist or not, has changed. Rather, it has fallen by the wayside through the team's changing of hands, as names are wont to do (hello, Disney's Mighty Ducks of Anaheim Ducks), as well as the changing of ideologies. For decades, the name 'Redskins' has been a positive icon, and definitely not actively associated with racism. The team's iconic fight song "Hail to the Redskins," unveiled in 1938, extols the Redskins as something worth hailing, and it has been sung that way by millions of Redskins fans.

A quick sidenote: The focused attack on just the Redskins is interesting. Where's the hatred towards the Blackhawks and their far more derivative logo? Where's the all-out offensive on the Atlanta Braves and their handling of the Native American heritage, especially in light of their spring-training cap debacle earlier this year and use of that logo for decades? Oh, right, it's all perfectly innocuous and respectful enough to avoid meriting a letter and lawsuits. Bomani Jones' succinct assessment on "Horn" was a little too succinct: while there are "all the teams that have gotten rid of their Native American names, and there the Redskins are, refusing," they're not alone.

Less deserving of the caucus' time and stationery, apparently.

Even Dave Zirin's editorial letter over at Grantland doesn't acknowledge Snyder's disassociation with both the Redskins' past and any racism that might have remotely lingered. It wasn't Dan Snyder's fault that the team was the last to integrate, in 1961. In fact, the team seems to show little to no indications of racist tendencies today, save for this much-ballyhooed nickname, or rest assured those instances would be in the media's arguments as well.

I may be drifting into areas I don't fully grasp here. I won't profess an extensive knowledge of racist treatment of Native Americans in the past few years. But it has been widely documented that the Washington football team's name is tantamount to a slur towards Native Americans. In this context, however, it is not meant as a slur, or in any way negative. Goodell's description is accurate:

Importantly, this positive meaning is shared by the overwhelming majority of football fans and Americans generally, including Native Americans. (Attached as examples are recent remarks from Chief Steven Dodson, an American Inuit chief and resident of Prince Georges [sic] County, Maryland, and recently retired Chief Robert Green of the Patawomeck Tribe of Virginia.)
I sure hope for his sake that he included them. I couldn't find copies of these remarks.

One of Goodell's points is that the Washington team name has risen above its original, vituperative meaning in almost every corner of culture. This is ignoring Zirin's point that in South Dakota and other places, this may not hold true, but public perception has changed. A Redskin is now something to be praised (ideally--this wasn't true for most of 1995 to 2011 in the football world), and if not praised then respected. Punch "redskin" (NOT "redskins") into any major search engine, and the first result will revolve around football and Washington, virtually every time. Meanwhile, a similarly conducted search for "cracker" does not yield an entry about the snack wafer at number one.

The amusing side to this debate is the giant analogous leaps in logic made by the advocates. My favorite is as follows: both Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Tony Kornheiser proposed the scenario of Snyder and Goodell going to a Native American community and greeting a resident by saying, "Hey, what's up, redskin?" This should never happen, and would not.

However, the idea of perpetuating a racial slur to further your cause is an interesting proposal. The insistence on representatives, interest groups and columnists revisiting this issue is part of the reason that the term "redskin" has kept its dual meaning, instead of being narrowed to the more modern "an employee of the Washington Redskins football team." The problem is not the team using the name; the problem is that it still persists as a slur.

And by the same token, I wouldn't go up to a tall person I'd never met and say "Hey, what's up, giant?" Armed with this argument (now endorsed by members of Congress!) I'm in the process of sending letters to the insensitive New York football team and the callous San Francisco baseball team--San Francisco, that forward-thinking city of acceptance--and ask that they change their nicknames, because of the way that giants are historically depicted in literature. It offends my tall brethren and sisters. Thank you for your concern.

Another mildly interesting note is that there is no accommodating the other side in this debate. Very few columnists are making concessions to the other side. But Goodell, whether by legal obligation or no, made the concession that “reasonable people may view it [this issue] differently, particularly over time.” The fervor and issue which people bring to this case leave no room for the opposition. I see the reason on the other side, but I do not see enough overwhelming evidence to change an institution's name, and deprive this culturally diverse fanbase of their connection with the years of history, as Roger put it. 

Goodell is to be applauded for trying to bring the case into perspective. Yes, the name is not ideal, his argument of positive origins is dubious given Marshall's biased proclivities, and the word should not be used outside of this context, and especially not to insult anyone. Within this football context, however, it is a symbol of respect, of pride, of strength; there is no ill will left in the name in this sphere, and if there is, it needs to be swiftly eradicated. I stand with Roger Goodell on his decision to support the Redskins name.

Hail to the politically neutered Washington Football Team of Divers Football Players, or 'Redthings' Redskins.

I'm not sure this was apparent, but I've been a lifelong fan of this team, from Terry Allen to Alfred Morris.