Is Your Favorite Sports Team’s Nickname Offensive, or No?

There are not a whole lot of formal conventions governing the naming of sports teams in the United States. Between the major leagues and the college ranks, we have mammals, birds, fish, sea creatures, insects, arachnids, invertebrates, weather formations, geological formations, machines, mythological creatures, nonexistent animals, colors, clothing items, supernatural phenomena, historical groups, musical genres, astronomy references, and when all else fails, good old-fashioned corporate sponsorships (the “New York City Red Bulls” is still a thing that exists, Lord help us all). The proliferation of leagues and franchises has required teams to get increasingly creative, and they have certainly risen to the challenge. In fact, there’s arguably only one rule you really need to remember anymore: don’t name your team using a word that is also an honest-to-God racial slur. That’s it. It really is not that particularly difficult.

And yet! This somehow still remains a problem in our nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., where a professional football franchise valued at $2.85 billion by Forbes blithely continues, in 2015, to call itself the “Redskins.” It’s actually pretty remarkable that a name that, again, is generally considered a racial slur has only managed to make its way into the public consciousness as a problem in the last ten years or so; by contrast, we would never, ever, ever allow a team to be named the Washington N—–s (following appropriate convention, as previously outlined in this space), the Washington Chinks, the Washington Wetbacks, the Washington Towelheads, or the like. Frankly, this inadvertent double standard is a rather sad indictment of the largely unseen ways in which many Native Americans populations continue to be quietly, anonymously disadvantaged in modern society.

So why does the “Redskins” nickname continue to get the red practice jersey treatment? Because (as people who are wrong about things often shrilly argue) we have always done it this way; because history; because tradition. Upon even a moment or two of reflection, however, it becomes clear that pretty much every argument about why the nickname isn’t so bad, or why the nickname is (again, Lord help us all) actually good, falls somewhere in between “naive” and “moronic to the point of disingenuous.” Here are the most popular talking points, as outlined by that one annoying guy on his fourth Blue Moon standing next to you in Generic 14th Street Bar X talking about which member of Congress he works for.

Well, other names could be construed as offensive, too! Should we change every team name, then? WHERE WILL IT ALL END? [breathes heavily through mouth] I’m getting a headache already. In the D.C. area, this line of thinking (under the most generous possible interpretation of the phrase) is pushed by, among many others, mediocre Washington tight end-turned-radio personality Chris Cooley, who on his sports radio show takes every opportunity he can to deliver a master class in Terrible Analogies. Cooley:

I don’t like the Chargers because I want to protect the ozone, all right guys? I feel like there’s a global warming issue, and I don’t like the name Chargers, because they’re promoting electricity. Eff electricity, and eff the Chargers name. I have a problem with them.

Set aside the fact that if he put thirty more seconds of thought into this, he probably could have come up with a better example than the rather tenuous causal connection between “electricity” and “global warming.” Even still, this is a fun game! The “Minnesota Timberwolves” name offends me because I support the deer upon which they prey; the “Milwaukee Bucks” moniker offends me because I support the foliage upon which they graze; and the “Santa Cruz Banana Slugs” offend me most of all, because, frankly, I do not like gross things. But Cooley here misses the point with the same grace and aplomb that he put into missing blocks in the running game; “Chargers” is simply not a racial slur. It is something other than “a name that would earn you a punch to the face if you were to it to address or otherwise engage with a member of the group to which said slur refers.” Again, avoiding those types of team names is really the only rule you need to follow. Thus, the Chargers and Timberwolves and Bucks and Banana Slugs are all just fine (Banana Slugs is still gross, though).

Unfortunately, Chris Cooley has no shortage of guest lecturer candidates for his master class. On the national medial level, ESPN columnist Rick Reilly has the same scorching take angle covered.

I know an atheist who is offended by religious names like the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Doesn’t matter! Not a racial slur (though the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” mouthful is admittedly really dumb).

There are people who who don’t think Ole Miss should be the Rebels.

Nope, not a racial slur. But as previously discussed here, do remember to keep your Confederate flags at home.

People who lost family to Hurricanes.

Still no racial slurs involved!

There are people who think Wizards promotes paganism.

Ugh. Look, the only thing that the “Wizards” nickname promotes is mediocre basketball, and while their offense is possibly some form of slur, it is certainly not one of the racial type. But Reilly and other pro-namers do not give in so easily. After all, other team names refer to groups of people, too!

ESPN and many other media companies cover the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves without a single searing search of their social conscience.

While we’re here, we should note that I am perfectly willing to concede that slang terms for Native Americans, like “Chiefs” and “Indians,” are on shaky ground when used as team names (the Cleveland Indians’ logo, Chief Wahoo, is particularly not a good look). Many people feel those nicknames should be changed, and I do not disagree with their arguments. But still! Even those manage to clear the the very, very low hurdle of “being something other than a racial slur.” And for that reason, they are not like “Redskins.” Nor are the 49ers or the Vikings or the Saints or the Sooners or the Gauchos or the Packers. No, “Redskins” remains in a class all by itself. And just for fun, Reilly’s kicker is too good to leave alone:

For the Native Americans who haven’t asked for help [in changing the name], we’re glad to give it to them. Trust us. We know what’s best. We’ll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again.

Kind of like a reservation.

Hahahahaha. Yes, changing a team nickname from a racial slur to literally anything else is the exact same thing as creating poverty-ridden Native American reservations, Rick Reilly. I can’t believe he is paid in American dollars to write sentences like that. He should be locked in a small room and forced to listen to the Tomahawk chop for the next two weeks.

Some Native Americans have adopted “Redskins” as a term of pride, using it, for example, as their mascot for reservation high schools. Why can’t the NFL do the same thing? This is about two steps removed from the argument generally advanced by that guy from your freshman year dorm who would get drunk and say things like “well, if rappers can use the n-word when talking to each other, then why can’t I?” Don’t be that guy. Linguistic re-appropriation of derogatory words is a tricky thing, as almost by definition derogatory terms can only be re-defined by the targets of that word. If a black person wants to give the n-word an alternative meaning by occasionally using it as a term of affection instead of a racial slur, then fine, more power to them, and I hope they succeed. However, just as they should not be shocked if their uncle gets angry at them for casually tossing around the n-word word at the Thanksgiving table, those Native Americans who are not offended by “Redskins” should probably understand that the experience of other Native Americans, in the context of that term’s history as a raw, hurtful racial slur, may be different. And if at least some people consider something to be an expression of hatred and bigotry, you should probably go ahead and name your dumb sports team something else.

Another important point. If a Native American high school decides to adopt “Redskins” as its nickname, that’s a fine example of self-determination, of robbing a cruel term of its meaning by making it a unifying symbol in which they take pride. What is different about the Washington Redskins is that it is a nickname unilaterally promulgated by a rich white person who makes hundreds of millions of dollars off his use of a caricature with a headdress every year. This is not the way re-approprtiation works. A minority group can act to change the meaning of a slur if it so chooses, but the group in power — the users of the slur — cannot just wake up one fine day and decide that, no, this time, we don’t mean that word in an offensive way, in the way we meant it all those other times. This time we mean it in a good way! (As that guy from your dorm floor would say as you backed away in horror, “Like, you know, brothers or something!”).

THERE ARE SO MANY OTHER IMPORTANT ISSUES FOR INDIANS, I MEAN NATIVE AMERICANS, WHY ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT A TEAM NAME, STICK TO SPORTS. Ugh. Yes, a multitude of other problems that Native American populations face demand significant attention from politicians and policymakers: poverty, obesity, healthcare, education, housing, and so on and so forth. And yes, these are issues that are far important than a sports franchise nickname. But they are also really, really hard things to change, and doing so is going to take excruciating amounts of time, energy, and planning. By contrast, changing a patently offensive sports nickname is, of all the problems we could possibly cook up, just about the easiest one to fix. Dan Snyder could file the paperwork to make the team the Washington Monuments (or the Washington Senators!) tomorrow, mock up a new logo and color scheme next week, and proceed to make nine bajillion dollars in new Robert Griffin III Kirk Cousins jersey sales this off-season. “Redskins” is a racial slur that has no place in public discourse in 2015, and it would be no trouble at all to make it go away. The only reason that there still somehow remains a “controversy” that pro-namers derisively refer to as “overblown” and a “non-issue” is that those people remain so adorably recalcitrant in ignoring those facts.

The name is a solemn tribute that respects Native American history! Hahahahaha. Those of you who have not had the privilege of walking two miles in the snow from the nearest Metro station to FedEx Field to see a game in person are profoundly lucky, but also are probably unaware that after the team scores a touchdown, a band and the JumboTron lead the entire stadium all 20,000 fans actually in attendance at the stadium in the team’s fight song. The lyrics have been cleaned up somewhat in recent years, but were originally as follows (all emphasis mine):

Hail to the Redskins!
Hail, victory!
Braves on the warpath!
Fight for Old D.C.!
Scalp ’em, swamp ‘um—We will take ‘um big score
Read ‘um, Weep ‘um,
Touchdown! — We want heap more
Fight on, fight on, Till you have won
Sons of Wash-ing-ton. Rah!, Rah!, Rah!

Again, a marginally modernized version of this monstrosity is played after every touchdown. This was an especially problematic fact back when the team was any good and thus scored more than occasionally, but still, look at this garbage! This demonstrates no deep-rooted understanding of Native American community or culture. The song includes no nod to famous figures in tribal history, to significant events in U.S.-Native American relations, or to the condition of Native American populations today. No, this accoutrement of the nickname is a faux-broken-English pantomime of what some old dead white people thought Native Americans might sound like from their experiences reading comic books or watching “Cowboys and Injuns” TV shows or whatever. It is casual, ignorant racism in the style of gibberish “Chinese” impressions or blackface minstrelry, and it cannot be defended in good faith anymore.


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