Should the Washington Redskins Change Their Name?

Daniel Doherty

10/19/2013 8:00:00 AM - Daniel Doherty

It’s a controversy that’s been brewing for years: One that every broadcaster in the business has seemingly thought about or weighed in on. Indeed, the heat is turned up so high that some respected media outlets are now even refusing to print the word “Redskins” in their editorials. Question: Is the team name so inherently offensive that it’s finally time to change it?

Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, doesn’t think so. Below you'll find an excerpt from a moving letter he wrote to fans just a few weeks back (via the Washington Post):

To Everyone in our Washington Redskins Nation:

As loyal fans, you deserve to know that everyone in the Washington Redskins organization -- our players, coaches and staff -- are truly privileged to represent this team and everything it stands for. We are relentlessly committed to our fans and to the sustained long-term success of this franchise.

That’s why I want to reach out to you -- our fans -- about a topic I wish to address directly: the team name, “Washington Redskins.” While our focus is firmly on the playing field, it is important that you hear straight from me on this issue. As the owner of the Redskins and a lifelong fan of the team, here is what I believe and why I believe it.

Like so many of you, I was born a fan of the Washington Redskins. I still remember my first Redskins game.

Most people do. I was only six, but I remember coming through the tunnel into the stands at RFK with my father, and immediately being struck by the enormity of the stadium and the passion of the fans all around me.

I remember how quiet it got when the Redskins had the ball, and then how deafening it was when we scored. The ground beneath me seemed to move and shake, and I reached up to grab my father’s hand. The smile on his face as he sang that song ... he’s been gone for 10 years now, but that smile, and his pride, are still with me every day.

That tradition -- the song, the cheer -- it mattered so much to me as a child, and I know it matters to every other Redskins fan in the D.C. area and across the nation.

Our past isn’t just where we came from -- it’s who we are.

As it happens, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer devoted much of his latest column to this topic. He argues that the franchise should not change the name to placate the sensibilities of ruffled newscasters -- but because the meaning of the word has indeed changed. It’s simply not acceptable to use the word “Redskins” (much like it’s not acceptable to use the word “negro” to describe African-Americans) in 2013. Times are changing:

If you were detailing the ethnic composition of Congress, you wouldn’t say: “Well, to start with, there are 44 Negroes.” If you’d been asleep for 50 years, you might. But upon being informed how the word had changed in nuance, you would stop using it and choose another.

And here’s the key point: You would stop not because of the language police. Not because you might incur a Bob Costas harangue. Not because the president would wag a finger. But simply because the word was tainted, freighted with negative connotations with which you would not want to be associated.

I know there are surveys that say that most Native Americans aren’t bothered by the word. But that’s not the point. My objection is not rooted in pressure from various minorities or fear of public polls or public scolds.

Growing up, I thought “gyp” was simply a synonym for “cheat,” and used it accordingly. It was only when I was an adult that I learned that gyp was short for gypsy. At which point, I stopped using it.

Not because I took a poll of Roma to find out if they were offended. If some mysterious disease had carried away every gypsy on the planet, and there were none left to offend, I still wouldn’t use it.

Why? Simple decency. I wouldn’t want to use a word that defines a people — living or dead, offended or not — in a most demeaning way. It’s not a question of who or how many had their feelings hurt, but whether you want to associate yourself with a word that, for whatever historical reason having nothing to do with you, carries inherently derogatory connotations.

Krauthammer’s points are well-taken. But at the same time, I sympathize with devoted Redskins fan, all of whom have spent their entire lives watching and cheering on their beloved team: The Washington Redskins. They have no desire whatsoever to see the team name changed solely because their owners succumbed to political pressure. Plus, they argue, polls do indeed show that many Native Americans aren’t offended by the appellation.

Still, my hunch is that the Redskins will eventually be forced to capitulate one way or the other -- that is, as the organization comes under increasingly heavy fire from civil rights groups and others demanding Dan Snyder “get with the times.” But it’s also important to remember that there’s a long and proud history surrounding the Washington Redskins that goes back generations, a tradition I imagine most fans won’t want to give up.