Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What’s in a Name?

“I wish the Washington Redskins would change their name,” I said, apropos of nothing.

My Dad gave me this strange look, as though desiring that Washington’s National Football League team would go by a different moniker was the most bizarre statement that anyone anywhere could make.

This happened about three years ago.  I can’t really remember anything else about the incident.  I don’t remember the context of my statement.  I think I made the comment in my Dad’s kitchen, where the two of us would often congregate whenever I visited him at his home not far from the team’s District of Columbia stomping ground.  I don’t remember if I was sitting or standing.  I don’t remember if we were just passing through the kitchen on our way to somewhere else or if we had settled ourselves next to the stove.

I can only remember my Dad’s expression: a look that mixed both puzzlement and pity, worried incredulity that such a trivial and useless thought would ever occupy anyone’s head.

Why did I say it?  Maybe the two of us were sitting at the kitchen table and watching the small portable TV on the counter, as the monitor beamed a football game.  Maybe I was sitting at the table reading the Washington Post, as I often did.  Whatever the reason, it’s a thought I had harbored for a long time.

Coming from the Washington area, I was closer to this issue than I would have been if I had grown up in another part of the country.  I’m not into sports, but I always wanted to root for my hometown-area teams whenever I caught them playing a game on my local Los Angeles bar’s TV.  However, rooting for Washington’s NFL team was always difficult for me.  Although several other professional sports teams are saddled with problematic names referencing Native Americans — the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs — Washington’s football team is the only one whose name is an outright racial slur.  So, whenever I want to cheer on a hometown-area NFL team, I root for the Baltimore Ravens.  (The Ravens are named after a poem by Baltimore resident Edgar Allan Poe.  How cool is that?!)

Although I dislike the Washington NFL team’s name, I had no intention of doing anything about it.  The issue of the team changing what it’s called had come up many years before, and its fans — in interviews on the local news, in letters to newspapers, and elsewhere — made an adamant show of defending the name.  I knew that if I ever made any kind of gesture advocating a change of the team’s nickname, I would be hit by gale-force blowback that I’d never want to deal with.  If the name ever changed, I thought to myself, it would do so when Washington football fans grew away from it.  However, I occasionally fantasized about Native American casino owners buying the team and transforming the appellation that way.  (My choice: the Washington Whities — turn the tables.)

So, it’s something of a surprise to me that the issue of the Washington NFL team changing its name has picked up steam in recent months.  Why did the topic suddenly become so pressing that owner Dan Snyder felt compelled to write an open letter in the Washington Post last October defending what the team is called? After searching the Internet for the reason, I came upon this recent op-ed in the Chicago Tribune:

That debate [about its name] has more traction now because the team faces a critic that is more persistent and has deep pockets to finance a campaign. As The Washington Post recently reported, the Oneida Indian Nation, which is leading the campaign, has become a financial and political powerhouse thanks to its huge interests in casino gambling in New York state.

So, that’s the reason!  Native American casino owners didn’t need to go to the extent of actually buying the team to make their displeasure with the name palpable and relevant.

As for Snyder’s letter, his defense of the team moniker was mostly about its emotional associations for him and other fans.  The team, which was originally based in Beantown, was first known as the “Boston Braves” but changed its name in 1933 to avoid confusion with an identically titled baseball club.  So, the phenomenon of the franchise changing its name is not unheard of, and I wonder if the 1933 alteration of nomenclature met with similar resistance.  But words change connotations all of the time, and if a majority (not just those whom Snyder cites) of those most directly affected by the word (in this case, Native Americans) object to it, shouldn’t that trump the emotional associations that outside groups have with that word?  Missing for me in Snyder’s letter was why the name “Redskins” conveyed “strength, courage, honor, and respect” in a way that no other name ever could, and in a way that outweighs this country’s troubled history of race — for that history is what the name denotes.

More recently, lawmakers in Washington have sent letters urging Snyder to change the name, and some have even introduced legislation to disallow “the federal registrations of trademarks using the word redskin in reference to Native Americans.”  I would advise these legislators to back off now that they have made their opinions on the matter known.  If the Washington NFL team ever changes its sobriquet due to political pressure directly from Congress, fans would become especially resentful, and conservatives and libertarians would gain a new scapegoat to epitomize the Heavy Hand of Government.  Leave this issue to the private market and Native American activists.

Good luck, folks of the Oneida Indian Nation.  Your cause is a good one, and I’ve supported it for a long time.  You’re obviously ready to deal with the blowback from the name’s defenders in a way I never was.  You can look forward to some passionate advocacy of the name from die-hard Washington football fans.  And maybe some vituperation, too. 

But here’s one thing I’m sure of: if the subject of the Washington NFL team changing its name ever comes up again between me and my Dad, he probably won’t give me such an incredulous look the next time.

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