Mention the Washington Redskins and names like Joe Theismann, Art Monk and Sonny Jurgensen come to mind. They were great players on great teams. Robert Griffin III might be added to the list someday, as well.
But another subject has some grumbling that political correctness has reached its zenith in Washington. That is the team’s nickname – the Redskins – which has drawn claims that it carries racial overtones and draws out the NFL franchise’s history of discrimination.
I’d never given much thought to the the team’s label until Goshen, a community in northern Indiana, started discussing whether "Redskins" was an appropriate mascot for the local high school and its athletes. Many see it as a racially derogatory expression that is offensive to Native Americans.
Really, team nicknames, mascots and labels seem a little silly. I can’t give you much information about why they’re called the Dodgers or what a Catamount is. I can't describe a Hoosier. I do know that such terms have rallied communities and, in some cases, become loved and valued identities.
The controversy in Washington has reached such a pitch that team owner Daniel Snyder discounted any possibility about renaming the team when talking to USA Today: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.”
Critics point to the case of the Penobscot Indian Nation whose tribesmen in the mid-18th century were tracked and killed for money. Their scalps – “redskins” – brought a nice bounty, explained Eni Faleomavaega, the delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from American Samoa, in a column for Politico.
The current chief of the Penobscot Nation, Kirk Francis, described this hunting and killing of men, women and children as a “most despicable and disgraceful act of genocide.”
His strong comment stands in contrast to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s letter to Congress, in which he declares nickname “a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”
The team and league’s support for the nickname is harder to defend in light of the past.
Redskins founder George Preston Marshall was an arch-segregationist who championed all-white teams. In 1961, he defended his whites-only policy this way: “We’ll start signing negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”
The Kennedy Administration recoiled and put heavy pressure on Marshall and the Redskins to change their blatantly discriminatory hiring practice. They did.
Recently lawsuits and legislation have been filed to void the Redskins trademark, claiming it is a slur and therefore cannot be legally protected. A ruling is expected anytime.
A group of Washington lawmakers has also entered the fray. Rep. Tom Cole, a staunch Republican from Oklahoma and Native American, and nine other congressmen sent a letter to the NFL and Snyder saying the team’s name needs to change. “Native Americans throughout the country consider the term ‘redskin' a racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word' among African Americans or the ‘W-word' among Latinos,'' they stated.
The NFL isn’t the only body confronting the question. The Capital News Service reports there are 62 high schools in 22 states that use the Redskin nickname. Over the past 25 years, its exhaustive study found 28 high schools in 18 states that dropped the mascot.
Only this summer, the school board in Port Townsend, Wash., unanimously voted to drop the Redskin nickname after 87 years. But in Goshen, Ind., the school board did little more than roll its eyes and move onto another subject, letting the controversy linger.
Much of this battle can be traced to a constantly evolving language, as well as a political process that now welcomes a much broader spectrum of viewpoints.
The more I learn about the controversy, the less comfortable I am with the nickname. My view has changed from ambivalent to uneasy. While I doubt many use the term in a hateful way, there's no doubt that it's hurtful to some.
Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.