The Redskins have fumbled the ball over their nickname
Already, the next Washington embarrassment is upon us. While Native American groups ratchet up their protests and NFL owner Daniel Snyder continues to insult the nation's original inhabitants by clinging to a racist slur for his team's nickname, the bad jokes and silly remedies are pouring in.
From the satirical "Onion" comes "news" that Snyder had "heard the concerns of many people who have been hurt or offended by the team's previous name" and that, as a result, he will change from "Washington Redskins" to "D.C. Redskins." The animal rights group, PETA, offered a blog-post suggestion to keep the name "Redskins" but switch the logo to a redskin potato.
Such groan-inducing humor means this is serious. D.C. mayor Vincent Gray has taken to referring to "our Washington team," skipping the nickname. A D.C. school, Woodrow Wilson High, last week announced plans to consider banning the team's apparel on school property. Various Web sites, apparently trying to get ahead of the curve on an eventual retooling, are recommending that the team be called "Warriors" or "Renegades."
Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has come to acknowledge that the league must be "sensitive enough to listen" to complaints, and such high-profile sports journalists as Sports Illustrated's Peter King have stopped using the nickname.
"That's pretty important," said Duke University cultural anthropologist Orin Starn, whose areas of expertise include sports and a Native American Studies program. "One doesn't expect sportswriters -- no offense -- to be big activists or people deeply concerned about Native American rights."
Northeastern University law professor Roger Abrams, whose books on the confluence of law, sports and politics include his latest, "Playing Tough," noted that there have been cases brought in U.S. trademark law for disparagement, though he doesn't expect legal action against Snyder. Instead, he wondered what has taken so long for public outrage to come to a boil.
"It is hard to rationally, reasonably defend the Redskins name," Abrams said, "other than to say we've always called them 'Redskins.' And that's like saying we've always called [blacks the n-word]. When are we going to stop this? I don't think it will be stopped by a court suit or congressional involvement; nobody in Congress ever does anything. But this is a country far less tolerant of these things than when I was growing up, and things can move quickly when it comes to social consciousness."
Snyder has insisted that the Redskins' brand is worth keeping, but that is a difficult sell for a man who owns the world's eighth-most valuable sports franchise ($1.6 billion), according to Forbes.
Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist agreed there "are some real expenditures in changing the name, putting new signs all around the stadium, changing the logo and so on.
"But I don't think those expenditures are particularly large. Maybe a couple of million. And, of course, there's going to be lots of interest in a new name. People who have Washington Redskins jerseys will want the new jersey with the new name. With all the stories about this now, it's built-in free advertising." A marketing opportunity.
Snyder's intransigence reminds Starn of how Augusta National Golf Club stubbornly resisted female membership for decades -- "Rich men don't like to be told what to do," he said -- but also of how society's standards do change for the better. "Bullets was a great name [for Washington's NBA team], but as the murder rate got out of control, not so much." And the team became the Wizards.
It has been four decades since colleges began to drop Indian nicknames, though many were not considered offensive and Native Americans typically refer to themselves as "Indian." "But the word 'Redskins,' Starn said, "is freighted in a way that Chiefs, Indians and Braves is not. And this is not a tribe name. Historically, 'Redskins' really was the n-word in talking about Native Americans."
That the nickname persists -- and has been defended by Snyder for its tradition and heritage -- "is a spurious argument," Starn said. "You don't want to keep the tradition of separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites, or the tradition of keeping black players out of professional sports, as [original] Redskins owner George Preston Marshall did."
At this rate, some of the substitutes being proposed for "Redskins" -- Washington Dysfunctionals, Washington Wackos -- seem downright profound.