Allow me to be perfectly clear: the name “Redskins” is absolutely an offensive racial slur, and, yes, owner Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins organization should change the name. Ultimately, doing so is harmless. Some fans will be disgruntled but they’ll quickly get over it. Speaking of which, as a guy who grew up in the D.C. metropolitan area and adored the Redskins for more than half my life, it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if the team name was changed to whatever. At this point, I really don’t care what it is, nor will my life be impacted in any way by it, but if I were forced to weigh in with an alternative, I don’t mind “Americans” or “Redtails.”
However, there’s one bothersome aspect to the ongoing debate about whether to change the team name. The degree of public outrage over the name, both for and against, seems to far outweigh the reaction to clearly more outrage-worthy behavior throughout the NFL. Again, this isn’t to say in any way, shape or form that the Washington team name issue isn’t important. It is. But it’s slightly less important than what appears to be an epidemic of criminal behavior by NFL players, including domestic violence, drug abuse, the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs, and the league’s frustrating leniency toward all of the above. Even the federal government, which hasn’t scrutinized any of these other more critical problems, weighed in on the name controversy.
This past June, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office famously rescinded the trademark to the team name, famously satirized on a recent episode of the great South Park. The matter worked its way up to a tribunal with the Trademark Office known as the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which decided 2-to-1 to rescind the trademark due to its obviously offensive connotation.
And this week, it was announced that the Federal Communications Commission is considering a request to ban the used of the team name on broadcast television. The chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, stated point-blank that the team name is “offensive and derogatory” and that he and the other members of the commission “will be dealing with that issue on the merits, and we’ll be responding accordingly.” Naturally, it could swing either way, though the FCC often decides based on what they consider to be community standards with regards to offensive language — a subjective “we know it when we see it” rule of thumb. The fact that the chairman used the word “offensive” should make Dan Snyder crap his big-boy pants.
It doesn’t take much by way of observation to notice that the bulk of the attention, both from the government and in the public discourse, is lopsidedly focused on the Washington issue, rather than the NFL’s alleged cover-up of potentially life-threatening concussions, as well as, and perhaps more critically, criminal behavior by some of the players and the league’s completely lackadaisical self-policing of the problem. We’ve posted this before, but it bears another look in this context. Here’s a chart showing the NFL’s almost hilariously lenient punitive reactions to infractions by various players, many of whom went back to playing as if nothing happened:
If the government is prepared to sanction a team for its name, why not these other issues, which are literally matters of life and death? And why has the name debate remained a perpetual discussion point online and off, while criminal activity and the league’s weak (at best) reactions are seemingly incidental discussions reserved for whenever there’s a damning video clip on TMZ, but not too often otherwise?
A relevant analogy would’ve been an ongoing effort, say, 100 years ago, to strike the slur “darkies” from American society, while only offering sporadic bursts of concern toward lynchings, Jim Crow laws and neo-slavery. All of these issues needed to be dealt with and mitigated with haste, but prioritized accordingly especially knowing how real people were being disenfranchised, injured and killed.
It’s difficult to know exactly the source of this glaring disparity between the public outrage over a racist team name and the relatively lesser outrage over serial criminal wrongdoing and completely inadequate policing within the broader NFL. Perhaps the disparity is due to the notion that it’s easier to see a logical conclusion to the Washington problem than is it is to the other problems, a few of which directly relate to how the game is played (PEDs, concussions, etc). The “Redskins” issue is arguably much easier to resolve — change the name, and the fan-favorite traditions of the game can easily endure beyond it, especially since the name issue only corresponds to one team and a losing one at that, rather than more complicated problems with deep roots throughout the league, involving players from many teams. If that’s the case, it’s not a legitimate excuse. In fact, there isn’t really any legitimate excuse for the lopsided outrage here.
Chances are, Dan Snyder will acquiesce and change his team’s name before Roger Goodell or any team owners are ever asked to step down for those other matters. And there’s little or no sign on the horizon that the federal government will take action against teams that only mildly punish wrongdoing or which aid in the cover-up of head injuries and PEDs.
It’ll definitely be a good day for sports and an especially great day for Native Americans when the name change occurs. But we’ll still be left with a major sporting organization that refuses to take seriously its league-wide issues. Will fans turn their attention to PEDs or domestic violence with the same disciplined focus? Who knows, but based on what’s happened so far, it’s doubtful.
On a more personal note, I’ve hesitated to weigh in on this issue for some time now. Why? Partly because for most of my life, I used the name “Redskins” when referring to the team I grew up watching and rooting for. Throughout many of those years, a small part of me recognized that the word is an offensive slur, but I kept using it anyway because after all, I rationalized, it’s the actual team name so it must be okay. Nah. It wasn’t. And it’d be hypocritical of me to call out historical instances of racism, for which the excuse is often given, “Well, it was accepted back then,” while refusing to admit that I fell into to the same trap. Sure, “Redskins” was a widely accepted team name for decades, but I can’t justifiably pardon myself by saying it was once acceptable, therefore it wasn’t racist for me to repeat it. The best I or anyone else can do is to learn from our ignorance, apologize and evolve. Hopefully Dan Snyder will figure this one out soon.