The Washington Redskins debate


After L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was taped using racially charged language, NBA commissioner Adam Silver acted swiftly to ban the old billionaire from basketball.

Not unexpectedly, the incident sparked water cooler discussions, tweets and blogs about racism in society. Collaterally, the Sterling incident also renewed debate over other sports related racism, in particular, whether the Washington Redskins football team should change its name.

Actually, the Redskins controversy has been brewing for years, and each time it cycles back into the news, team owner Dan Snyder repeats his claim that the name is not offensive, and that he has no intention of ditching it. But this time around, Snyder found himself having to defend his stance in the wake of Sterling’s racist rant, which cast a pall over team owners in every sport. Snyder also had to contend with Congress.

On May 22, forty-nine Senators voted to urge NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to get rid of the name Redskins, with Senator Harry Reid declaring the word racist. The vote was largely symbolic because Congress can’t force Goodell or Snyder into changing their shorts, much less a team name. Nevertheless, our gridlocked elected officials in D.C. wanted to look like they were doing something, so they weighed in against racism.

The truth is, unless fans stop watching Redskins games in person and on television, or unless the NFL bans the team from appearing on TV, then Snyder will ride out this latest storm and stick to his guns. The question is, should he?

In response to Senator Reid’s recent statement, Redskins team President Bruce Allen wrote, “Our use of ‘Redskins’ as the name of our football team for more than 80 years has always been respectful of and shown reverence toward the proud legacy and traditions of Native Americans.”

In the past, Snyder and his minions have argued that they have the support of American Indians, and that the word Redskins is not racist in and of itself. Fact is, they’re correct on both counts. In December of 2013, author and columnist David Skinner wrote a balanced and compelling article about the use of the word Redskins. He noted that in 2005, Ives Goddard, Indian Language Scholar for the Smithsonian, reported that, “the actual origin of the word (Redskins) is entirely benign.” Goddard’s conclusion was based on extensive research including that “Redskins” as used by early Europeans was derived from “Native American phrases involving the color red in combination with terms for ‘skin’ and ‘man’.” Goddard went on to say, “These phrases were part of a racial vocabulary that Indians often used to designate themselves in opposition to others.” And, he cited numerous letters and documents written by tribal leaders who used the term Redskins in a descriptive manner, not a derogatory one.

Nevertheless, Congress, the media, and other groups seem hell bent on extreme political correctness even if the offending word doesn’t offend the very group they seek to protect. Whether well meaning or not, these social arbiters have determined that the “R” word is as offensive as the “N” word. It’s not. True, both words came to us in similar fashion. Like Redskins, The “N” word is derived from and adapted by cultures who initially sought only to describe skin color. The difference in the two words, however, has to do largely with how and why they evolved into modern day usage.

Redneck racists and fanatical religious bigots have, over time, turned the “N” word into a vile put down, while those same groups hardly ever refer to Native Americans as anything but “Indians”. Ironically the limited use of the “R” word in a racist context may be, in large part, attributed to the Washington Redskins themselves, a popular football team which has been around for nearly a century.

Over the last 80 years, racists have handed down their hateful use of the “N” word from generation to generation, while thinking of “Redskins” as a respectful term for a rough and tumble bunch of macho football players.

For now, Dan Snyder’s in-house research continues to show that the overwhelming majority of fans, including Native American groups, has no problem with the continued use of Redskins as the team name. Should that change significantly (and it may in years to come), then those same fans may find themselves rooting for a team named the Washington Warriors, and that wouldn’t be so bad. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).