Friday, October 25, 2013

Any Team Worthy of the Name Would Change It

The recent government shutdown is not the only thing Washington D.C. has to be ashamed of these days. Another is the embarrassing debate being waged between the historical problem of racism and the commercial power of brand recognition. Dan Synder, the owner of the Washington football team at the center of this controversy, chose to support the latter on October 9th, 2013, in a letter that was as much about  placating "loyal fans" as it was about assuring paying customers.  What Synder failed to explain in his heartfelt plea, however, is how the name of his football team - a name which is considered to be an insult when applied to a person - should nevertheless be considered a compliment when applied to his franchise.  

The pigskin getting kicked around in this political football game is the "Redskins," both the people and the name.   According to Snyder's letter, and legions of team fans, the name "Redskins" is a symbol of "respect" for the “strength, courage, and pride, ...embedded throughout” the “rich history” of the “original Americans.” For a growing number of “original Americans,” on the other hand, the name is a symbol of a history rich in racism “embedded throughout” with suffering, cruelty, and discrimination. The different interpretations are directly related, of course, which is why the name itself is so often representative of both.

 Ironically, Snyder's interpretation, and much of the respect Americans have for Native American “courage” today, comes from the “strength” Native Americans were forced to exhibit against American racism in the past.  Continuing to use the name "Redskins" may therefore result in football fans showing their "respect" for the "original Americans" by trampling over Native American "pride" all the way to the football stadium.  And the fact that Snyder insists on his right to use the name in the face of growing disapproval only demonstrates how unworthy the team might be of bearing the name at all.    

In its simplest form, the argument over 'The Name' can be boiled down to a contest between two groups of people: the name “Changers" and the name “Keepers." The Changers are offended by the racist implications of the name and want it changed.  The Keepers, on the other hand, are offended by the suggestion that the name is racist and therefore refuse to change it.  While the former has emotional scars and reasons related to hundreds of years of racism, theft, betrayal and genocide, the latter has eighty years of football "tradition" that they fear may be lost or tarnished by a change in name (so much for being courageous). Somehow, in this playoff for emotional dominance, the Keepers feel their own emotional connection to a football tradition should trump the Changers emotional sensitively to their historical treatment. For feigning an injury that would shame even an Italian soccer player, the Keepers clearly deserve a red card. 

One reason the Keepers claim emotional superiority in this contest is because, according to Snyder, for 81 years the name Redskins "was never a label,” but “was, and continues to be, a badge of honor.”  Nor was the name, as it was originally used even before the invention of the sport of football, ever intended as a racial epithet. Yet focusing on these selective definitions of the name alone not only requires us to forget a plethora of evidence to the contrary, it also asks people to ignore any degree of racism that may have attached to the name before, and during, the last 81 years. 

 The truth is that whatever innocuous meaning the name "Redskins" may have had when it was first used in America, or applied to the football team, is as irrelevant today as the etymology of the nefarious "N–word.” Like the name "Redskins," the "N-word" did not originate as a racial epithet, nor was it always considered a derogatory term.  In the seventeenth century, for example, it was commonly used simply to denote "black-skinned."

In the early 1800s, "the word was spelled "niggur,"' and was often used in the literature of the time, not as a derogatory slur or racial epithet, but as a common term of every day speech. The British explorer and travel writer George Fredrick Ruxton, for example, "often included the word as part of the "mountain man" lexicon." Rather than being used pejoratively in those days, the word "niggur" was used the same way terms like "dude" or "guy" are used today. A passage from Ruxton's Life in the Far West illustrates a common use of the word in spoken form—the speaker here referring to himself: "Travler, marm, this niggur's no travler; I ar' a trapper, marm, a mountain-man, wagh!"

Arguing that the name "Redskins" should continue to be used simply because the name, as it was applied to the team, “was never meant as a label” is like arguing that the "N-word” could also one day become the moniker for a sports franchise because it was not originally coined as a racial epithet in the 1600s.  Like the "R-name," the "N-word" simply denoted the skin color of those people who suffered the horrors of slavery with as much 'strength and courage' as the “Redskins.”  Snyder's emotional plea to fans (i.e. customers) simply attempts to limit the definition of "what the name means" to the last 81 years by ignoring everything that preceded it.  Imagine if he tried to use a similar argument for renaming his team with the ‘N-word.” 

Rather than admit that the name “Redskins” is a back-handed compliment with a fistful of insult, some Keepers suggest instead that Changers are just being ‘overly sensitive,’ and reading into the name a meaning it does not have. If the term "Redskins" is seen as a "badge of inferiority," in other words, it is not by reason of any racism found in the word itself, but solely because the Changers have chosen “to put that construction upon it."

 This “faulty construction” argument has been used before. In 1896, for example, it was used to defend the racially motivated tradition of "separate but equal" against former slaves who were accused of being too sensitive about the rule.   In fact, Supreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown, who wrote the majority opinion for the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, established that invidious doctrine by employing the same argument: 

"We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."

 Today, Snyder is following in the footsteps of Justice Brown by suggesting that Changers are likewise failing to understand that the name “Redskins” is not meant to disparage but to dignify. The name, in other words, is an invocation of Native American bravery for surviving what David E. Stannard described as the "worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed, roaring across two continents non-stop for four centuries and consuming the lives of countless tens of millions of people."   Calling a football team "Redskins," therefore, is a little like Germany calling one of its soccer teams "Judens," and for all of the same reasons. 

That the Keepers are exercising the same insensibility toward the "original Americans" of today who want the name changed as those who perpetrated "the worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed" exercised on their ancestral "Redskins" over the course of four centuries, is conveniently overlooked by those who claim their own traditions should trump the emotional discomforts of anyone else.  Such insensibility comes today, as it came in the past, not from sports fans showing their respect for the "original Americans," but from what Snyder described as the ‘relentless commitment’ to the “sustained long-term success” of his franchise. And let's not forget, the success of a franchise is determined by one thing only -  money.
When Deep Throat told Bob Woodward to "follow the money" in the movie All the President’s Men, he wasn't just giving Woodward  the key to understanding Watergate, he was also divulging the secret to understanding everything that happens in Washington. While Snyder waxes emotional in his letter about why he wants to keep the name "Redskins," the real reason can be found by following the smell of money emanating from his post script. Like a secret that's too good to keep all to himself, Snyder gushes about all the “Redskins bumper stickers, Redskins decals, Redskins t-shirts, Redskins everything” that he sells to “literally tens of millions of loyal fans (i.e.,customers) worldwide.”  Washington, as a result, makes more money than any other professional sports franchise in the United States. 

Although fans may hate to admit it, team names, like the teams themselves, are not “nations” with great histories, but brands that generate great profits. And Washington has an extraordinary ability to do just that. According to Forbes, Washington is worth $1.6 billion, and makes an estimated $345 million in revenue per year. That's about $25 million more than the  New York Yankees. You know, that team with the 27 World Series Championships. To generate that kind of profit Snyder "took a very under-marketed asset and squeezed every last cent out of it," according to Dan Kaplan, finance editor at The Sports Business Journal. "He's turned the Redskins into a cash machine. And the result is a completely soulless, corporate product." 

Snyder insists, nevertheless, that the name “Redskins” is “more than a name we have called our football team for over eight decades.” For him, remember, that name is “a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect.” But if Dan Snyder is being honest about how he envisions the team name in his letter to fans, then he should do more than simply talk about his “respect” for the “rich history” of the “original Americans.” He should strive to live up to those standards himself, and prove that the team has been worthy of the name Redskins for the last 81 years by having the “strength, courage, and respect” to change it.

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