When it comes to offensive team names, Stephen Silver tries to make sense of what you can and can’t say.
The issue of whether the Washington Redskins should change their name, which has sort of percolated around the fringes of sports discussion for the past 10 or 15 years, has broken through in a huge way this year. Seemingly overnight, there’s more pressure than ever on team owner Daniel Snyder to ditch the “Redskins” name. Numerous journalists and media outlets have come forward to call for a name change and even President Obama said in an interview last week that the team should think about making a change.
It’s beginning to appear inevitable that one day the Washington NFL team will have another name. And as the pressure has built, the pro-“Redskins” side has embarrassed themselves, with Snyder continuing his seemingly unblemished career record of public relations blunders. First he hired the political fixer Lanny Davis, and then sent an egregious “open letter” defending the name that was quickly torn to shreds by various writers.
But even Snyder has argued the case more persuasively than once-respected ESPN columnist Rick Reilly, whose don’t-change-the-name column was totally indefensible even before we found out he had lied about his American Indian father-in-law’s approval of the name.
Should the Redskins change their name? Yes, they should. There’s no way that a professional sports team, in the 21st century, should have a full-on racial slur as their official name. This isn’t like “Braves” or “Chiefs” or “Warriors,” names which can be plausibly interpreted another way. Redskins is an actual slur. Atom and His Package were right.
It’s also important to keep history in mind. The Redskins had an owner for decades, George Preston Marshall, who was a virulent racist and segregationist who refused to sign black players until 1962, 15 years after Jackie Robinson debuted in baseball.
Other teams in the sports world with legacies of institutional racism—such as, say, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Boston Red Sox—have since come to terms with and done everything they can to rectify those legacies. But the Redskins–even though they’re the only team to ever win the Super Bowl with an African-American quarterback—have not. To this day, there are a whole lot of African-Americans in the D.C. area who support the Dallas Cowboys over the hometown team.
Now that said, I don’t support the government somehow forcing a name change. If Washington, DC, wanted to withhold money for a prospective new stadium in the district until the team changed its name, I’d be all for that, but the Redskins shouldn’t be renamed by an act of Congress or the courts.
And I’m also uncomfortable, as a journalist, with the decision by such news outlets as Slate, the New Republic, and Peter King’s MMQB to not publish the “Redskins” name. It strikes me as a kind of journalistic wishcasting, that you’re going to report things the way you wish they were, rather than what they actually are. This is especially true now that there’s a big push to change the Washington name: It’s a news story that the Redskins are still called the Redskins, and therefore it should be covered as such, and that includes use of the actual name.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not time for a change. If some large number of all-time great players, or even current star quarterback Robert Griffin III, called for a change, that would be huge. If Joe Gibbs—the legendary former coach of the team and also a vocal conservative—were to come out for it, that would be even bigger. The Redskins will one day change their name, when it becomes untenable for them not to do so. Think Chink’s Steaks.
Halfway around the world, there’s another controversy about a sports nickname that’s an ethnic slur. The Football Association, the national governing body for soccer in England, has called for fans at Premiere League soccer matches to be arrested for using the word “yid,” a well-known slur directed at Jewish people.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, in England or elsewhere, a couple of bits of background: European soccer has a long history of horrid fan behavior, both in terms of racism and violence, that make the most vicious, drunken hooligans of the NFL look like nothing. Europe also has a long tradition of soccer hooligan groups and neo-fascist political movements being more or less the same people; one Premier League club even recently fired a manager who was an avowed Fascist, complete with a back tattoo of Benito Mussolini. (See Franklin Foer’s great book, “How Soccer Explains the World,” for about a dozen stories about this stuff.)
At any rate, racial harassment and violence directed towards both fans and players is a big problem in European football.
Against that backdrop stands Tottenham Hotspur, a Premier League club representing a traditionally Jewish area of North London. Opposing fans have long directed anti-Jewish slurs at the club and its fans. And so, at some point in the past, Tottenham supporters decided to turn the chants to their advantage, and started referring to the club and its fanbase as “Yids” and “Yid Army.”
I’m Jewish, I root for Tottenham, and when I first got seriously into soccer about five years ago, the “Yid Army” thing was a big reason I chose Tottenham as my preferred club. And while I have never been to a game in England, I saw Spurs play an exhibition in New Jersey last year, and the chants of “Yid Army”—led by a crowd that included a large amount of black-hatted Orthodox Jews—was one of my favorite sports-fan experiences ever.
Now I realize this is England, not America, and there’s no First Amendment. But surely a distinction must be made based on context. There’s clearly a difference between a fan using a word associated with his own ethnicity to cheer on his team, and one using it to tear down the team and ethnicity of someone else. If a fan throws a banana at an opposing team’s black player—which happens in English soccer more than you’d think—arrest that guy. Not the Jewish fan who is reappropriating an anti-Semitic slur.
So, in a word, it comes down to context. Tottenham isn’t officially called the Yids. Moreover, the Redskins name didn’t come about because an American Indian portion of the team’s fan base was striking back against racial prejudice and reclaiming a bad slur. And therein lies the difference. It’s time for the Washington Redskins to change their name.
For more on this and related controversies, see Poster Puts the Racism of the Cleveland Indians Iconography Into Embarrassing Context and NCAI’s New Report on Racist Sports Team Reminds Us of How Little Progress We’ve Made.