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What’s in a name?
A lot of emotions, it turns out, for many upset activists petitioning the Washington Redskins to stop using what some see as a racial slur for a team name and mascot.
The NFL is now faced with straddling a fine line between a war on tradition and political correctness.
The word “redskins” is thought to have originated from Massachusett’s colonial Gov. William Shirley and his scalp bounty system, in which money was exchanged for the scalps and hair of Native Americans.
While many groups are calling for Washington to change their name in this era of political correctness, team owner Dan Snyder has defiantly shot down any glimmer of hope for the name change.
“We’ll never change the name,” Snyder said to USA Today. “It is that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.”
His comments, along with growing opposition to the name, have led many journalists to stop using the “R-word” altogether. Peter King, editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated’s football-specific spin-off Monday Morning Quarterback, has simply referred to the team as the Washington football team, as have others for the website, SI.com.
USA Today sportswriter Christine Brennan has stopped using the word that she herself has said at least “10,000 times” when covering the team for The Washington Post.
Even D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, in an interview with the Post, said that if the team were to play its games within the borders of the District, and not in close-by Landover, Md., that there would have to be talks of changing the name.
Is Snyder just defending the team he owns?
Or is this a much bigger problem, using Native Americans as mascots for sports teams, that dates back to the original Redskins owner?
We can find an answer in Thomas G. Smith’s book, “Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins.”
George Preston Marshall, who had just purchased the franchise with a group of Boston businessmen, named the team the Boston Braves.
The name was chosen as a way to send a jab to royalists who were still loyal to the English monarchy.
After their first season, Marshall hired Lone Star Dietz as head coach. Dietz claimed Sioux ancestry and Marshall allegedly wanted to honor him by changing the team’s name to Redskins.
As if naming a team after a word that is seen as derogatory and hurtful was not bad enough, Smith came away with the impression that it was Marshall who coaxed the other team owners in banning African-American players from playing in the league.
The previously integrated NFL started its ban on African-Americans in 1933, Marshall’s first year as sole owner of his franchise.
Even after the NFL reintegrated in 1946, Marshall refused having African- Americans on his team. It was not until the JFK administration in 1961 that the Redskins were integrated and only did so because of a government order.
So while the Redskins were more or less birthed out of a racist, derogatory and discriminative mission statement, it is ironic that Snyder is opposed to change for fear that it will hurt the history of the team.
The public outcry is unlikely to wither and has been influential in colleges changing their mascots and team names.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania formerly played athletic events as the Indians but used a bear as its mascot. The bear was introduced in 1991 and was named “Cherokee” in a move by former IUP President Lawrence Pettit, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, to “preserve tradition and fend off critics, all at once.”
The case study at IUP is reason to believe that there is still hope for those clamoring a name change.
Robert Griffin III, Washington’s superstar quarterback, could put even more pressure on Snyder to change the Redskin’s name by simply making a few remarks at a news conference.
“All Robert Griffin has to do is just say in one interview that the Redskins name makes me uncomfortable, and that name’s gone next season, right?” ESPN’s Bill Simmons asked in his Aug. 21 podcast, the B.S. Report with Bill Simmons.
“Oh, absolutely,” said The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin about the influence of the Washington quarterback and Subway pitchman. “If Robert Griffin III said, ‘I want to change the name of the team to the Washington Subway Sandwiches’…it would happen within 24 hours.
“Dan Snyder would say, ‘Do you want it to be 6-inch or the foot-long.’”
While Griffin is Washington’s most famous player, his influence on the team may be a bit inflated.
The man that has the power to make a change is none other than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who is no stranger to changing rules midseason and punishing players for disciplinary or legal reasons.
In a June letter to congress, Goodell defended the Redskins name and said that it was never meant to demean or denigrate any group of people.
“The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context.”
Goodell also wrote that the name unifies a large, ethnically diverse fan base.
However, his stance seemed to change just a few months later in a Washington radio interview Sept. 11.
“If we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure we’re doing the right things to try and address that.”
So if the man in charge of running the entire NFL can seemingly change his stance on a controversial issue, can the billionaire owner who has seen increased criticism change his thinking as well?
In a perfect world, the answer is yes. But with Dan Snyder, anything is possible.
But one thing is for sure, and that is that public and even congressional pressure will not be letting up anytime soon.
You can put that in all caps.