Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion

BENNER: A nickname only an NFL owner could defend—and keep

September 21, 2013

When the recent season-opening game in Denver was delayed by thunderstorms and lightning, I posted on Facebook that not even the National Football League was more powerful than God.

But He might be the only one.

I give you, for example, the Washington Redskins, whose nickname continues to roll so easily—and thoughtlessly—off our tongues.

We check the calendar and yes, indeed, it does say 2013, and the evolution of American culture has long since determined, on multiple levels, that “Redskins” is more than a nickname—it’s an ethnic slur.

Redskins. C’mon. Think about the word.

Many have. In 1970, there were 3,000 professional, college and high school teams named Redskins. More than 2,000 have since changed their names.

That’s why my daughter, who graduated from Miami (Ohio) University, did so as a “RedHawk,” and not a Redskin, the nickname of its teams for many years. Might I also suggest Indianapolis Public Schools visit the issue of Manual High’s Redskins.

But the Washington Redskins, because of their NFL profile, are certainly on a much higher plain than colleges or the preps. They’re on national television in prime time; a constant subject of discourse and attention among the national media.

Accuse me of political correctness all you want, but in my view, the question is not just why we should change it now, but how have we tolerated the Washington Redskins’ name all these years?

The answer is because they’re an NFL team, and no one messes with the NFL.

Consider how Commissioner Roger Goodell responded to Congress this summer after 10 representatives sent a letter to the NFL requesting abandonment of the name.

“The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context,” Goodell said. “For the team’s millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America’s most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”

Strength? Courage? I thought it was a football team, not the Marines.

And note Goodell’s defense is about the “fans and customers” and not about the Native American groups it offends.

Meanwhile, the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, responded in no uncertain terms.

“We’ll never change the name,” he told USA Today. “It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use all caps.”

Well, never is a long time, and maybe even Snyder’s billions can’t hold back a rising tide of opposition.

Sadly, the call for change from Native Americans never has been heeded. Instead, it’s coming from members of Congress—as noted previously—and prominent members of the media.

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, ESPN’s Bill Simmons, USA Today’s Christine Brennan and the Washington Post’s Michael Wise are four journalists who have vowed not to use the name in their reporting.

Wrote King in his popular Monday Morning Quarterback column, “It’s a name you won’t see me use anymore … it offends too many people, and I don’t want to add to the offensiveness. Some people, and some Native American organizations—such as the highly respected American Indian Movement—think the nickname is a slur. Obviously, the team feels it isn’t a slur, and there are several prominent Native American leaders who agree. But I can do my job without using it, and I will.”

Even Goodell may be softening on the issue, saying this past week, “We have to do everything that’s necessary to make sure that we’re representing the franchise in a positive way, and that if we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure that we’re doing the right things to try to address that.”

It is estimated that a name change could cost the team as much as $20 million.

And just think of the money to be made from the newly branded gear fans would buy.

Redskins? Really? Let’s toss that on the bonepile. It’s 2013, for crying out loud.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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