Washington Redskins helmets with the iconic red and gold colors and logo are displayed on the field during football training camp in 2009. Longstanding criticisms of the team name have recently achieved important momentum and media attention. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
A chorus is growing louder from Native American communities and sports writers saying it is time for the Washington Redskins to change its name. Now President Barack Obama is weighing in. Speaking to the Associated Press amidst the budget horror show, President Obama said, “I’ve got to say that if I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team, even if it had a storied history, that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
It was a stunning statement for this most cautious of politicians, who hordes his political capital like a miser collects scraps of tin foil.
Obama’s statement is merely the latest in a sign that the mainstream is waking up to what Native American activists have been saying for four decades: that there is nothing “honorable” or “respectful” about the name Redskins. There have been some remarkable pieces from unlikely sources from Maureen Dowd of The New York Times to the folks at Funny or Die.
But of everything in the recent barrage of common sense and anti-racist logic, nothing quite nails it like a piece last August in The Onion.
At its best, the satirical newspaper can grab an indefensible political argument that has somehow seeped into respectable public discourse, and de-pants it for the world to see. With glee they shout, “This talking point has no clothes!”
They accomplished this feat with the headline, “Report: Redskins’ Name Only Offensive If You Think About What It Means.” The article quotes “New Mexico University Researcher Lawrence Wagner,” who says that based upon his extensive and rigorous academic study, “When you hear or say ‘Redskins’ in the abstract, it’s completely harmless, but we’ve discovered that if you briefly pause to remember it’s a racial slur for an indigenous group wiped out by genocide over the course of a few centuries, then, yeah, it’s awful…It has the potential to come across as a degrading relic of an ethnocentric mentality responsible for the destruction of an entire people and their culture, but that’s only if you take a couple seconds to recognize it as something beyond a string of letters.”
For team owner Dan Snyder, there’s no escape. Even star quarterback Robert Griffin III had his wedding guest, former boxing impresario Rock Newman, tweeting from the ceremony, “I admire RG3 and am pleased to b attending his wedding to begin momentarily. Let no one get it twisted, as I sit very near Dan Snyder, I despise the RACIST, DISRESPECTFUL name of the team whose jersey he wears.”
Why all the recent attention? As usual, it always helps to follow the money. Dan Snyder dreams of returning the team to DC, with visions of a billion-dollar publicly funded stadium dancing in his head. The city council and Mayor Vincent Gray have made clear that without a name change it’s a non-starter. In addition, RGIII has made the team relevant for the first time in a generation. With relevance comes attention, and with attention comes people actually taking a second to think of “Redskins” as more than just “a string of letters.”
Every time a publication wakes up and says, “We will say ‘burgundy & gold’ or ‘Washington football team’ but not the R word,” it does what the Onion article accomplishes. It shakes the reader and asks, “Please just think if in 2013, this is really, honestly and truly okay.”
Yes, there are “bigger problems in the world”, as name-defenders always fall back upon. In addition, if President Obama is commenting on this, it is worth asking what his agenda for the poverty plagued reservations actually is (the AP reporter didn’t ask). But one of these mammoth “problems of the world” are the way people of color are dehumanized on a global scale. Masses die from war or famine, and we collectively shrug because our media and culture process the victims as an “other.”
Anything that we can do to chip away at this state of affairs matters. The only reason there is a team called the Redskins in DC and not the “Blackskins” is because of violent depopulation. The region is 0.6 percent Native American, and without that stubborn fact, the name would be unthinkable.
Last note: I come from an Ashkenazi family. The shtetls where my people lived for centuries were wiped away by the Holocaust. If Germany or Poland started a club soccer team called “The Jew-Skins,” it would be wrong and acknowledged as such no matter how loudly the club owners said it was a tribute my culture, my religion or the practice of circumcision. Let’s not live a double standard. It’s time to change the name.
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