Jayne: What's in a name? For Redskins, it's source of debate

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

I received a call awhile back, during my previous life as a sports editor, from a gentleman who identified himself as a Native American and wanted to talk about the furor over the Washington Redskins' nickname.

"I don't see what the big deal is," he said. "I attended tribal schools and we used to call each other 'redskin' all the time."

Which is a valid point, one of many valid points that can be made on both sides of the issue regarding the Washington Redskins. You see, the NFL team based in the nation's capital happens to have a nickname that many deem to be racist, and every so often this becomes an issue of importance for the national media.

That's what happened last week, when President Obama said, "If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team -- even if it had a storied history -- that was offending a sizeable group of people, I'd think about changing it."

Seems reasonable. I think it's fair to say that many people find "Redskins" to be offensive. I think it's fair to say that it would be, in the long run, good business to change the name. But Daniel Snyder disagrees. And because he owns the franchise, having bought the football team and its stadium in 1999 for $800 million, his vote is the only one that really matters.

Still, I find the Redskins debate to be fascinating. And I find it to be in several ways a microcosm of many debates we have in this country. Take, for example, the notion that we all should be offended by a football team named the Redskins. I don't think we all should be offended. I, personally, find it extremely offensive, especially for a team in the nation's capital. But that doesn't mean you should find it offensive; that's up to you.

I find it offensive because it focuses on skin color. Supporters claim the name is a tribute to Native Americans, but I don't buy that. Chiefs, Braves, Warriors, Seminoles, Illini … those can be construed as honorifics. They celebrate admirable traits or specific tribes. But Redskins? There's no doubt that long has been used as a pejorative.

That's what makes the name much different from the Chieftains, the athletic teams at our own Columbia River High School. A Vancouver Public Schools spokeswoman said Friday that the district has received no complaints about the name, and I don't see any reason for that to change. The Oregon Board of Education, on the other hand, voted last year to ban Native American mascots at high schools in that state, a move that officials here say has not been suggested.

Redskins, meanwhile, just seems different from Chieftains or Indians or Winterhawks. I can't imagine a team in the Bay Area being called the San Francisco Yellowskins.

Name dates to 1933

The Redskins adopted their nickname in 1933 while based in Boston, apparently in honor of coach Lone Star Dietz (Fun fact: On Jan. 1, 1916, Dietz coached Washington State to what remains the school's only Rose Bowl victory). These days, you can find Native Americans who are offended by the name, but you probably can find many more who are not offended. In 2004, an Associated Press poll of American Indians found that 90 percent thought the name was acceptable; an AP poll of the general population earlier this year again found widespread support for the name.

And that drags the discussion into the realm of political correctness. For some 20 years now, cries of "political correctness" have been used to denigrate many a progressive line of thinking. Worried about societal changes that threaten to upend the world as you know it? Just blame political correctness and do so in a mocking tone. That stance has always confused me; it seems the opposite of political correctness would be incorrectness, and I don't think that's something worth celebrating or clinging to.

All of which makes me think of the nice gentleman who called me some months ago. As a child, he and his friends took a pejorative that was hurled at them and they took ownership of it. It's a form of self-empowerment, much like some black people use the N-word today. But I don't think that would make an appropriate name for sports team either.