A team by any other name, please

This is a column I wrote in 2013 about the nickname of the pro football team in Washington. There have been calls to change the name over the years and now it looks like it just might happen or at least the owner seems closer than ever before. That is a positive thing. Overlook the outdated references and thanks as always.

Use the word “redskin” in a sentence. But first make a couple of notable exceptions. One, it can’t be a sentence about the pro football team in Washington. And two, eliminate any reference to potatoes.

Now go ahead, use “redskin” in a sentence.

Uh-huh. Not that easy, right? Yep. Thought so.

Anyone who can honestly say it’s not a racial slur after this exercise should perhaps be booked as a lifetime guest on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

Yet here we are once again arguing the merits of whether that previously referenced football team in Washington should keep the name it has had since 1933 when the franchise was in Boston and it started playing games in now historic Fenway Park. It kept the name when the team moved to Washington in 1937. It remained the Redskins when UNC legend Charlie Choo-Choo Justice chugged across the playing field there in 1951. Slingin’ Sammy Baugh is identified as an all-time Redskin on the team’s website. It was the Redskins when Vince Lombardi coached there briefly as well as George Allen and Joe Gibbs. And it was the Redskins when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl.

The team even has its own fight song, “Hail to the Redskins,” for goodness sakes.

So Redskins it is, Redskins it has always been — well, except for that period prior to 1933 when the team was known as the Braves.

And whether it will always be Redskins, of course, is another question.

Every five years or so the national call for owners of the Washington Redskins to change the team’s name and mascot is raised a few decibels. The argument is that it’s a derogatory term for Native Americans. Of that there could be little doubt. Historically, use of the word “redskin” was associated with the connotation of Native Americans — or Indians — as barbarians and savages. It was a slur of derision uttered by the future Americans who came to this largely untamed land from other countries and displaced the Native Americans here at the time — nothing less.

And every five years or so, team ownership decides to simply ignore that argument. Current owner Dan Snyder isn’t the first to do so; he’s just the one saying “no way” at the moment. The rationale by Snyder and the many who do support him is that the name is a part of team history and that it wasn’t put in place as a slur to begin with.

The owner is well within his rights to call his team whatever he wishes. Unless folks have forgotten, it’s still America. And he has the support of most Washington fans, a good many around the nation and quite a few Native Americans. Many of the latter of my acquaintance are pretty evenly divided on the subject, in fact. A friend and former colleague who’s an Occaneechi Indian from Randolph County wears a Redskins hat to work each and every Sunday during the football season.

So even though Snyder doesn’t have to change the name of his popular football team. Even though he can call his team nearly anything he wishes. And even though he’s done nothing illegal or wrong, I’d like to offer one piece of advice.

Change the name anyway.

He should do so for one reason: It’s the right thing to do.

Team mascots and nicknames depicting Indians aren’t new at all. In fact, it’s a very old practice. Some sports teams, organizations or schools began dropping it years ago. Stanford University, for example, became the Cardinal. St. John’s University is now the Red Storm instead of the Red Men. Syracuse turned Orangemen into just Orange. Other teams kept their Indian associations but work to meet a certain ethical standard. Atlanta’s baseball team is still the Braves. Kansas City’s football team remains the Chiefs. Both are names that offer some positive reinforcement of Native Americans. While some criticize the “tomahawk chop” fans practice during games or cartoonish logos like that once associated with the Cleveland Indians baseball team, there is usually less of an outcry about nicknames that meet a certain standard.

I went to high school at South Stokes, whose nickname is the Sauras. That was a tribe of Indians that settled in the Sauratown Mountains of Stokes County from the 1400s to the 1700s before moving and becoming absorbed by the Cheraw tribe, according to historical accounts. It’s a name indigenous to the site of the school. It has historical meaning, similar to that of Florida State and its use of the nickname Seminoles.

In those cases it is more of a homage.

Personally, I have no problem with respectfully rendered sports nicknames or mascots. Most are done in this way today. Redskins, though, crosses a line that goes well beyond the predictable charges of political correctness run amok. Many media outlets years ago began to see it that way and declined to use the name Redskins when referring to the team from Washington in stories, headlines or video. They use Washington instead.

Then again, if Washington keeps careening down its current political path, that word might one day be just as taboo.


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