By Jason Keidel
Uncle Sam dipped his beak in the NFL waters this week, making a statement about football’s most controversial franchise.
The Washington Redskins, who have become toxic and the topic du juor around the sports world, are in the crosshairs of some important people, which makes this an important issue. And, frankly, it raises more questions than answers.
We love sports for the zero-sum finality of the score, for its timeless codas of hard work, teamwork and the aesthetics of athletic beauty. But sometimes it doubles as a trial balloon for social change, like Jackie Robinson. And sometimes it asks us if we’re stuck in the past intolerance and impudence.
Do the Redskins represent both? Is it a twin test on our soul? Does it speak to our flexibility or to our allergy to change?
It’s become impossible to defend the team’s moniker – at least in a current context – since it’s so explicit and elicits such fervor from the anxious masses that are lapping ample heat on team owner Dan Snyder. But it’s not as simple as a quick name change, even if opponents frame it in such facile hues.
Sure, Snyder can take a giant eraser to the logo and silence the crowd and, to some extent, come off as a pliable, progressive guy who listens to his constituents. But like all historical intersections, there’s more to the story than just a name.
First of all, where was everyone ten years ago? Was the name less offensive in 2004? Why are we suddenly screeching before a racial Armageddon today? Sure, it takes progress to make progress, and most movements are glacial until they’re not. But the Redskins have been a football team for a long time, and the name has outlived most of its racially dubious peers.
And can we even agree on the meaning of the name? Some say it’s a racial slur and others say it has a deeper meaning, used to describe facial paint and traditions.
And what about the Cleveland Indians? Chicago Blackhawks? If you’re under 25 you may not recall the clusters of Native Americans protesting the 1995 World Series between the Indians and Atlanta Braves. You’ll recall Jane and Ted’s muted tomahawk chop during Braves games, but most folks at the ballpark didn’t care.
Tony Gwynn, as beloved as any American athlete of the last quarter-century, died of cancer this week. This has now led the PC Police to call for a tobacco-free sport. Like the case of the Redskins, the destructive behavior is pretty evident. You don’t name your team after a racial slur or put harmful content in your body.
But it speaks to the independence we allegedly love. Tolerance cuts both ways. It means you leave room for the more distasteful speech and reach of people you dislike. Consensus is impossible in America, which is part of our greatness and at the axis of our freedom. If we all thought alike, what would be the point and where would be the progress? So if we force Snyder to slap a new sticker on his team, are we progressive or intolerant?
Perhaps Snyder is just being silly or stubborn now. Maybe he’s not aware of the harm he’s doing to his brand. Is he just an obdurate billionaire baby who abhors the idea of being pushed around by people who don’t even watch football?
None of us can say what’s in Snyder’s head. And he’s already got a rep as a mess of an owner who has a Steinbrennerian approach to management. But is he taking a more ethereal stance? Is Snyder standing tall on principle? And if you force Snyder to change he can come across as a martyr?
And there’s the matter of relativism. At what point do we stick to our guns or surrender to the times? At what point do we concede to the masses?
In fact, what are the masses? Is it 90 percent or 10 percent? Does it matter? Do we change our ways the moment we offend a few people? Aren’t we, in public discourse, bound to offend people? Just having an opinion is enough to tick off at least a subset of some group.
One year ago (May 2, 2013) the Associated press conducted a poll which revealed that nearly four in five Americans didn’t think the team should change its name. And only 11 percent thought it would be changed with the remaining 10 percent either unsure or unresponsive.
Six months ago (Jan 2, 2014), Mike Florio of profootballtalk.com cited a poll with similar results – 71 percent in favor of the name, 18 percent opposed, and 11 percent undecided.
And NJ.com has a poll going today, with the early results showing similar numbers. So far, 77 percent of those who voted find the name fine.
Of course, there’s a difference between what I think or you think and what a Native American thinks. But if majority opinion doesn’t swing against Snyder, he may never consider switching his team’s name.
Again, there’s really nothing profound to be gained by keeping the team’s moniker. But is that the point? Does Dan Snyder have the right to keep the Redskins as a brand as long as it’s legal? That’s rhetorical, of course. But we’ve touched the main nerve of race, the third rail of American dialogue. There’s no algorithm that decides these matters since we’re in the murky waters of the subjective.
Nothing compares to the N-Word, for obvious reasons. The past and the poison behind the word are unprecedented in our nation’s history. Almost all other slurs slide into a blender and are poured into our consciousness, in no particular order, merely dependent upon the latest controversy.
But Native Americans don’t seem to have the same voice as other minorities. Maybe they aren’t as vocal or plentiful. Or perhaps it’s a matter of location. Growing up in NYC, the ultimate melting pot, I’m not sure I have met many, if any, Native Americans. And even New Yorkers must admit a certain, East Coast bias, the machine that churns out the issues.
If our need to act is commensurate to public pressure, then you can argue that our intent is poisoned. We just sweep it under the mat and it’s a wrap. We learned nothing other than that we’re obedient. So you can argue that “why” Snyder changes is as important as “when” he does.
The easy – and probably the right – thing to do is to find a new nickname for the NFL team in Washington. But even in the most distasteful matters, we must worry about precedent. It’s important we do the right thing, but also for the right reasons. Daniel Snyder should change the name of his football team because he wants to, not because he has to.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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