Editorial: Obama Joins Debate Over Washington Redskins Name

Rose Stoloff, Sports Editor

The Washington Redskins’s name has been contested for decades, and on Saturday, one new voice joined the debate: President Barack Obama.

“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 sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.

The Washington Redskins are one of many professional sports teams whose name and mascot plays on offensive Native-American stereotypes. The Washington’s, however, is arguably the most offensive.

Prior to writing this editorial I had assumed “redskin” was an insensitive way to describe the skin color of Native Americans. But its historical origins render it even more derogatory: during the French and Indian War, white settlers placed a bounty on the scalps of Native Americans Among bear skins and beaver skins, trappers and hunters would collect “red” skins — the scalps of the Native-American people themselves. Whether “red” was used to describe the hue of the Natives’ skin or the bloody nature of the scalps is disputed. Either way, the term “redskin” implies an association between Native Americans and wild animals.

Lanny Davis, the attorney of the Washington Redskins, responded to Obama’s comment by emphasizing that the Redskins do not mean to offend anyone.“We at the Redskins respect everyone. But like devoted fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks (from President Obama’s hometown ), we love our team and its name, and, like those fans, we do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group,” he said in a press release. However, the plain fact that “redskin” is the term used to describe a savage sports team, and one that competes against Bears, Giants, Jaguars and Lions, plays into the history of the use of the term “redskin” to describe a “barbaric” group of people.

Proponents of the mascot call it “endearing.” But isn’t the fact that a caricature of an entire race of people could be seen as an “endearing” mascot offensive in itself?

Here’s an analogy. I did not understand the patently offensive nature of the term “redskin” until I read, in multiple news sources — political- and sports-related blogs, — that “redskin,” with its tainted history  is as offensive as the “N-word.” Dressing up in feathers and donning Native-American spiritual props to show loyalty to the Washington team would be like wearing black face paint to support the “Boston N-words.” Hopefully, there is not an NFL team owner out there who would be able to defend such a mascot as not “intended to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group.”

Yet, when the mascot is a “redskin,” somehow it is not as widely perceived as offensive (I even have the guts to type out the word “redskin” while I wouldn’t think to write out the N-word). But the tides are slowly turning. In a sign of respect, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King said at the beginning of September that he would stop using the term in his writing. Other, more political publications, including Slate and Mother Jones, won’t publish the slur either.

I happen to agree with King, Obama and others who have taken steps to shame the Washington football team in an attempt to convince the team to change its branding. But this raises the question: Who should be held accountable for the team’s name? Is it the team owner, Dan Snyder, who is enamored of the team and was raised listening to the team’s fight song, but who also reaps substantial benefits from its offensive nature? Should the NFL step in? Should Congress? The President?

All of these avenues have been taken in the past to remedy offensive names. In 1995, Abe Pollin, owner of another Washington, D.C., team, the Washington Bullets, changed the Bullets to the Wizards in protest of high homicide and gun-related crime rates. In 2005, the NCAA took action and banned the use of Native-American mascots in its postseason tournaments. Earlier this year, 10 members of Congress introduced a bill that would ban the trademarking of racial slurs through mascots, such as the Redskins. Now we have heard from Obama.

Perhaps the mounting political pressure will urge Snyder, who vows he will never change his team’s name, to have a change of heart. Given his staunch opposition, however, I think the NFL ought to step in. The NFL has recently become a more politicized space. Issues of sexuality, safety and labor rights have played out on the football field. It is time the NFL tackles the issue of outdated racist mascots.