October 24, 2013

CHIUSANO | What’s in a Name? A Washington Tale

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After a magical run to the playoffs last year, sparked by a seven-game win streak to close out the season, the Washington Redskins currently sit at 2-4 in the NFC East. However, the football team hailing from the nation’s capital is under scrutiny for more than just its losing record right now. The tension in the debate over changing the name of the team — which is widely considered a derogatory term — has continued to climb, culminating in an Onion article this week that has only fueled the fire.

Titled “Redskins’ Kike Owner Refuses to Change Team’s Offensive Name,” the article bashes Washington’s owner Dan Snyder — who has been the leading proponent for keeping the name — and labels him with various anti-Semitic slurs. The brief is obviously meant to be satirical, but it toes the line between making a point and going too far. How can we expect this debate to be taken seriously when more racial slurs are being used in its defense?

Honestly, calling Snyder these names is not going to make a difference in the end. Snyder believes — albeit mistakenly — that this debate is not about race. It is not about who is offended or who is indifferent, but rather what pride in the history of a team should mean to us. In a letter to Redskins fans, Snyder had this to say: “After 81 years, the team name ‘Redskins’ continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are and who we want to be in the years to come.”

It can’t be that Snyder is giving his fans a history lesson here. Yes, for 81 years the Washington Redskins have been a source of pride for a city that lost its baseball team for a period of 33 years and has never really been able to find solace in its basketball team. But pride in a team’s name does not necessitate pride in the meaning of that name. Snyder has been unable to distinguish between these two. No one is going to take away what he calls, “that tradition — the song, the cheer — [that] mattered so much to me as a child, and I know it matters to every other Redskins fan in the D.C. area and across the nation.” For this debate to be settled, Snyder needs to stop taking the challenge to the name as a personal affront to his — and all of Washington D.C.’s — pride in their team, because the two do not go hand-in-hand. Snyder can continue to celebrate the Redskins’ accomplishments throughout the years without stubbornly defending a name that is unarguably derogatory.

Rick Reilly, a columnist for ESPN, weighed in on this debate last month, defending the team’s name. Part of the article attacked a statement made by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who said, “If one person is offended, we have to listen.” Reilly chose to focus on that. “One person? I know an atheist who is offended by religious names like the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Angels,” Reilly wrote. I respect Goodell for finally coming out and saying this name needs to reevaluated, but I do fault him for his wording.

This is not about one person; it is about a group of people that has been, and continues to be, persecuted in a country that they originally inhabited. Reilly was smart to harp on this one flaw of Goodell’s statement, but the same counterargument can be made to what Reilly said. If atheists are offended by those names, then would they not also be offended when Robert Griffin III makes the sign of the cross after throwing a touchdown pass, or when Big Papi crosses himself and points to the heavens after touching home plate? And if professional sports were to ban these displays of religious affiliation, would it not inflame the leaders of the church?

The central question that this debate boils down to is whether or not we are living in a world where everything is offensive to somebody. And the answer is that we probably are. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t start somewhere. And what better place to begin than the nation’s capital where, as Suzan Shown Harjo, a leading activist to change the name, said, “What happens [there] affects the rest of the country.” For the time being, Snyder and the rest of Washington’s loyal fans can continue to have pride in their team; they can have pride in a quarterback who has overcome a gruesome injury to be back on the field this season, they can have pride in last season’s playoff run and enough pride to believe that this can be repeated. But until the label of Redskins is dropped from the franchise, they cannot have pride in what their team name represents.