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Sunday, October 6, 2013

What's in a Name?

President Obama has declared himself "concerned" over the Washington NFL franchise's continued use of the name "Redskins"--thus presumably ensuring that the name will never be changed.

I don't know how I feel about the whole controversy surrounding the politically incorrect nickname.  Actually, that's not true.  I know exactly how I feel: I don't care.  I have far bigger things to worry about than whether or not the name "Redskins" offends Native Americans.  The Giants are 0-5 for God's sake!  Still and all, these are exactly the kinds of issues--fundamentally meaningless, yet rife with the potential for manufactured outrage--that scream out for saturation blogging.  So here goes.

I suppose I can understand the source of the offense, assuming that calling a Native American a "redskin" would be the equivalent of calling an African-American the 'N'-word.  (Amazing that I can't even bring myself to type that word, even in a discussion about racial epithets.)  And of course, Native Americans and others would point out--rightly--that no sports team would ever dare to call themselves (please excuse the expression) the "Little Rock Niggers" or the like.  But the reason that no team would adopt that name has as much to do with the history of the word as it does with any rational calculation of political correctness--or of human decency.  What does the N-word connote, after all, other than a history of oppression?

By contrast, when sports teams adopt nicknames, they often adopt names that connote strength or power (e.g., Lions, Tigers, Bears, oh my!).  "Redskins" is just another example of this, as are other team names that reference Native American attributes (not to say clich├ęs): the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks.  These teams chose those names because the teams felt they conveyed an image of strength, nobility, fearlessness.  Is this an insult?

Critics would point out that the names also convey the sense of Native-American-as-savage--noble or otherwise.  Or, indeed, that my explanation itself points to a fundamental problem: Teams name themselves after animals, and so by adopting Native American names, the teams implicitly equate Native Americans with animals.  I don't think this is the case, though: Unless such naming rituals also "animalize" 49'ers or Spartans or Trojans.  Hm.  Maybe it's only acceptable to name a team after a group of people if those people no longer exist?  Note to self: I can name my expansion minor-league field-hockey team the Berkeley Visigoths!

The Washington Redskins organization can obviously do whatever it wants with its name.  I take the team at its word when its officials assure us that they mean no offense.  And I respect the argument that the team has been the "Redskins" since 1932; there's history there!  But of course, there's history on the side of Native American groups, too, and respecting that history might pay off in more ways than one.

Heck, the Tampa Bay baseball team was the laughingstock of the Major Leagues until, after the 2007 season, they changed their name from "Devil Rays" to the less-infernal sounding "Rays."  A cosmetic change?  Perhaps.  But the team made it all the way to the World Series in 2008.  Maybe a little good karma goes a long way.

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