National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell is right to meet with Native American organizations regarding a possible change of the Washington Redskins team name. Although franchise owner Daniel Snyder remains steadfast in refusal to consider rebranding, continuance of this debate is important.
Beginning in the 1960s, some people have opposed “Redskins” as being an insult to Native Americans. Unlike other team titles of similar ethnic origin (for instance, the Atlanta Braves), Redskins, protesters argue, is a racial epithet. Some scholars believe the term’s origin dates back to early settlers referencing, in a derogatory manner, the skin tone of tribe members. Given that possible history, one which would imbue the word with demeaning intent, it’s no surprise that “redskin” has long fallen out of every-day parlance.
Except, of course, for thoughtlessly naming sports teams, from pee-wee leagues all the way up to Maryland’s professional football franchise. Native American groups have understandably voiced objections to the Redskins NFL brand, for which the logo is a dark-skinned head shot of “Chief Wahoo.” Federal politicians have in recent years sent letters of concern to Snyder regarding his team’s title, and have even attempted (unsuccessfully) to pass legislation which would have forced change.
And yet, national polls consistently depict a majority of Americans as not thinking a name-switch necessary. Numbers of people who are fine with retaining “Redskins” are hard to ignore, typically topping 75 percent. Perhaps those queried find the whole thing trivial. After all, “it’s just sports.”
Or perhaps this is due to the franchise’s long and rich past, forming as the Boston Braves in 1932 and subsequently capturing five championships. Why change now after eight decades largely defined by winning seasons and iconic players and coaches? Does potentially offending some members of one minority group warrant rebranding a storied NFL franchise?
Another possibility is that many individuals polled don’t consider “Redskins” a pejorative, because they don’t grasp its full derogatory flavor. Instead, the term might seem on par with relatively inoffensive sports-names like Cleveland Indians or Kansas City Chiefs.
But this word is not as innocuous. It takes too far the odd tradition of naming sports teams after Native Americans. That only a minority of citizens find fault does not make it okay to prolong an ethnic slur as a national brand.
Due to Snyder’s support for the name, change will not happen soon. Thus, Goodell has the right approach. With little hope for imminent action, NFL officials and Native American associations should continue an open dialogue about the matter. Maybe, one day, when Redskins ownership turns over again, a well-reasoned compromise could help bring about a new team title which is less offensive, and more considerate of an indigenous American ethnicity.