My family and I moved to Washington 48 years ago last month. Not too many years later, I began rooting for the Redskins. By middle school, I had a Redskins letterman-type jacket and a belt with a huge Redskins buckle. I wouldn’t move during games for fear I would jinx the Redskins. When Cowboys unknown Clint Longley stunned the Redskins on Thanksgiving Day 1974, I flung things around my bedroom and refused to eat.
Of course, those passions cooled considerably as I got older and ended for good when I began covering the team in 1989. I’ve now watched the Redskins as a reporter for longer then I did as a fan so I feel pretty qualified to weigh in on the raging controversy over their name, one that has even garnered attention from President Obama.
As a lover of tradition, the owner of a history degree, and an old-school type who has written five books on the Redskins, I understand those who say changing the name would be near-sacrilegious. After all, the team has been called the Redskins since 1933 when it was based in Boston. When the team left Braves Field, home of Boston’s National League baseball franchise, after its debut season for Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, owner George Preston Marshall merged the Indian theme with the baseball team’s colors and presto, the Redskins.
So this wouldn’t be a no big-deal change like the New Orleans’ NBA franchise becoming the Pelicans after 11 seasons as the Hornets. This is the team’s 81st season as the Redskins, its 77th as the Washington Redskins. The name has remained the same through five world championships and five title game defeats, four stadiums, six owners/team presidents, 26 head coaches and 27 Hall of Famers.
Sixteen years ago, Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin changed his team’s name to the Wizards even though Bullets had been a constant for 34 years dating back to the franchise’s days in Baltimore. Pollin did so unilaterally as a symbolic gesture to a city plagued by gun violence.
Owner Dan Snyder and the Redskins are in a whole different situation, facing increasing pressure from Native Americans and others who view the name as a slur instead of as a salute to the courage of the nation’s first residents. Leaders of various tribes have come down on opposite sides of the issue, but it’s easy to see why some would be offended by the name. Imagine how you would feel if the team was called an insulting name for whichever ethnic group you belong to.
A recent survey, admittedly of just 500 area adults, revealed only 25 percent said changing the name would reduce their support of the team, a number that rose to just 30 percent among those who identified as Redskins fans. In contrast, 18 percent of those surveyed, and 23 percent of self-described Redskins fans, said a new name would increase their support of the team. That’s not much of a dropoff in support in contrast to all the money Snyder could make as fans bought merchandise with the new name.
In June, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who grew up in Washington as I did during the era of “The Over The Hill Gang,” termed the Redskins’ name “a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect” and wasn’t “meant to denigrate Native Americans.”
However, Goodell has changed his tune lately, saying on Oct. 13, “Dan Snyder is way down the road on [considering making the change] and wants to do the right thing.” That certainly makes it seem that the Redskins’ name will soon be a relic. Snyder’s recent letter to season ticket holders about the issue was way more conciliatory than his “NEVER” comment when asked about making the change last spring.
I like the Washington Warriors name and logo that was unveiled last month, especially because it retains the burgundy and gold colors, but I could also endorse Red Storm since it maintains the red theme and would allow the team to easily adjust “Hail To The Redskins,” albeit with a new line replacing “Braves on the Warpath.”
And then there’s this. Given the Redskins’ 3-7 record less than a year after their first NFC East title since 1999, changing the name would allow them to enter the witness protection program and emerge as a whole different team. The way they’re playing this season, as has been the case for most of Snyder’s 15 years in command, it couldn’t hurt.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.