By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON — I’m a bit late to the topic, but the Washington, D.C., professional football team really ought to change its name. As encouragement for the franchise’s stubborn owner, we should just stop saying the offensive word.
The term “redskins” — it’s hard to write a column about a word without using it, I’m afraid — is a racial slur. Fans of the team, myself included, have pretended not to notice this uncomfortable fact for many years. Now we’re beginning to confront it.
The name fails the most basic tests of acceptability. Can you imagine employing it to address someone? Would you use it to describe anyone not associated with the team? If you overheard someone using the term in a non-football context, would you think more of that person or less?
The answers are obvious. To be honest, they always were.
We ignored the fact that we were uttering a vile and condescending insult — often, during games, yelling it at the top of our lungs — because we loved the team. I mean this literally: “Hail to the Redskins, hail victory” does not quite match “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” as poetry, but it is no less ardent an expression of love.
So we told ourselves that hey, it’s just sports, and maybe everybody should lighten up. But we knew — I did, and come on, you did, too — that this was a dodge. No one can seriously argue that sports are somehow insignificant or tangential to American life. And certainly no one can make the case that professional football, of all things, is some sort of obscure little sideshow.
Of the 20 most-watched broadcasts in U.S. television history, do you know how many were Super Bowls? All of them.
The national movement to get rid of racist team names and mascots is decades old by now. It’s odd, when you think about it, that the practice of naming sports teams after American Indians became so widespread in the first place — Braves, Chiefs, Seminoles, and so on. Apologists say it was a sincere attempt at paying homage to fierceness and bravery. I have my doubts, especially in the case of Washington’s football franchise.
George Preston Marshall, the owner who in 1933 changed the team’s name from Braves to Redskins, was a notorious racist. For more than a decade after other pro football teams began putting African-American players on the field, Marshall’s team remained an all-white bastion. Covering a game against the Cleveland Browns, legendary Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich once wrote acidly that the great fullback Jim Brown, “born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times.”
So it strains credulity that Marshall intended the new name to be a “badge of honor,” as current team owner Dan Snyder claims. More likely, it was casual racism of the kind that isn’t practiced in polite society anymore.
In May, Snyder told USA Today, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. Never — you can use caps.” So I guess he means never.
But public opinion is clearly shifting. Earlier this month, Snyder took what he must have intended as a more empathetic approach: an open letter to the team’s fans. It was pretty much an unmitigated disaster.
Snyder’s missive was a convoluted mixture of arrogance, petulance and historical fantasy. He essentially argued that since the name has been used for 80 years, and since he went to his first game when he was 6, and since some Indians apparently don’t consider the name offensive, it stands to reason that … well, it’s unclear just what those elements were supposed to add up to.
The fact that a slur has been used for many years does not impose a duty to keep using it. Language and attitudes evolve; Snyder’s problem is that discomfort with the team’s name has gone viral. We can all think of words in common usage eight decades ago that would start a fight today. If you’ve managed to unite President Obama and Charles Krauthammer against you, it’s over.
Snyder’s vision is clouded by nostalgia and an unjustified sense of grievance. Fans of the team should sharpen his focus by simply declining to use the name — and calling the team “Washington” instead.
If fans don’t allow the slur to pass their lips, at some point the name shifts on the balance sheet from tradition-steeped asset to embarrassing liability. Like RGIII racing toward the goal line, that day is coming fast.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.