Thursday, October 10, 2013

The second most offensive thing in D.C. right now

The ongoing debate about the offensiveness of the Washington Redskins' mascot would seemingly be proof enough that the name needs to be changed. You can claim all you want that something isn't really that offensive, but if you're having to do that, you've already lost. Arthur Blank doesn't have to constantly defend the falconry of his Atlanta Falcons, because the name isn't inherently offensive (that would be the team's play).

Nevertheless, there are ways owner Daniel Snyder could have justified his team's name in his letter to fans with some (tiny) degree of rationalization. One of the ways he tried, by soliciting the opinions of American Indians, is fair — though even there, he ignores the plentitude of tribes who do want it changed. But he truly dropped the ball with the two other approaches he took in the letter:

1) Citing tradition. Tradition has been used to justify every awful thing in American history. And, by nature, it defies the groundbreaking spirit that gives people traditions in the first place. In football parlance, a "winning tradition" means, "We used to win a lot. Remember that?"

Still, Snyder taps into the little kid in all of us by recalling his first experience at RFK Stadium, and how "the ground beneath me seemed to move and shake" when the home team scored. Hell, I know that feeling too and love it! Now I'm mad, because I don't want anyone taking that feeling away from me and future generations of fans! I know concussions are a big deal, but with a heightened sense of awareness, more advanced helmets and a better access to top-notch health care, hopefully we can enjoy football for decades to come.

Oh, wait, this is about that damn name. Snyder is equating the Redskins moniker with the feeling of being at a football game and singing songs and stuff. 

True, relevant story: I enrolled in the University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL) in 1998. USL had been its name since 1960, and even now some people still call it that. I was happy to be part of the school's centurylong tradition. 

Then, in 1999, the school changed its name to the University of Louisiana-Lafayette (more commonly known as UL). This required the changing of the fight song, because "U-S-L" was the final, rousing line. Many people (including me early on) objected to the move, because change is scary. But it didn't take long for the name to catch on, and for the fight song to change to "GO... U... L!" And now, saying "USL" makes you sound old-fashioned and/or like a Baton Rouge resident. 

Also, another school that changed its name, Northeast Louisiana (now UL Monroe, or ULM) changed its mascot from the Indians to the Warhawks. Which leads me to my next point:

2) Missing the point that there's a difference between honoring a people and slurring them, and good intentions aren't enough. For the most part, people aren't demanding the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians or Atlanta Braves change their names. Why? Because they manage to encapsulate the "strength, courage, pride and respect" of America's indigents without dwelling on skin color.

(The Cleveland Indians' logo is a different story. That caricature should go. Conversely, the Redskins have an honorable logo and appalling name.)

One thing that doesn't help the Washington franchise's case is its role in barring black players from the NFL. In 1932, owner George Preston Marshall (whose new team was then the Boston Braves) refused to employ blacks on his roster, and the league followed suit the next year. More than a decade of leaguewide segregation followed. The team itself was the last to integrate, holding out until 1962, and caving only after considerable federal pressure. 

If "tradition" matters, then this doesn't speak well of the team's record of sensitivity. It's not a huge leap to think a racist owner who changed his team name from the Braves TO the Redskins did so out of respect for a noble people. (If Marshall really wanted to honor his handful of native players, he could have chosen much better descriptors, just as the team should now.)

"Redskins" is an archaic and unnecessarily polarizing name for a pro football team. The more Snyder digs in his heels and cites tradition, the more he (intentionally or not) reinforces the team management's racist past. D.C. fans are strong. They can adapt, just like they did with the Wizards (formerly Bullets). As it turns out, change (and adapting to it in the name of progress) is also a tradition.

Also, Indians to Warhawks? Not sure if that was an improvement.

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