The Washington Redskins have a problem. The football team’s nickname is offensive to members of an easily aggrieved group that is determined to make pointless gestures toward righting historic wrongs through a grim lack of proportion.
In other words, its nickname is offensive to American liberals.
The epicenter of the anti-Redskins resistance is editors of liberal websites and magazines like Slate and Mother Jones who have decided to banish the word from their football coverage, such as it is. Needless to say, if you get your gridiron news from Mother Jones, you probably care more about the team’s labor practices and its carbon footprint than the performance of its positional units on any given Sunday.
President Barack Obama validated the offense-taking when he said in a recent interview that if he were owner of the team, he would consider changing the nickname, displaying, as usual, an officious inability to leave any presidential opinion unexpressed.
The roots of the Redskins go back to 1930s Boston. The team was known as the Braves when it played at Braves Field alongside the alliterative baseball team the Boston Braves, then switched to the Redskins when it went to Fenway Park to play alongside the Red Sox. A few years later, the team decamped to Washington.
In the consciousness of the nation’s capital, the Redskins exist somewhere between a beloved sports team and the object of a quasi-religious veneration. The team has a rich tradition, including a 70-year-old fight song, “Hail to the Redskins,” performed by a marching band (“Braves on the Warpath!/Fight for old D.C.!”). Its burgundy-and-gold uniforms and its logo are iconic, and the team’s long rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys has always made its nickname seem perfectly apt.
Surely, the franchise didn’t settle on its nickname as a way to slight Native Americans. No one picks a team name as a means of disparagement. San Francisco didn’t choose the name “49ers” because it wanted to mock the foolish desperation of people panning for gold in the mid-19th century. Dallas didn’t pick the name “Cowboys” to highlight the gunslinging violence of life on the American frontier. Team nicknames and logos invariably denote fierceness and strength, which in the context of the NFL are very good things.
Yes, the name “Redskins” is an anachronism, but it is a harmless one. It isn’t meant as a statement of how people should refer to Native Americans, nor would any rational person take it as such. A team nickname is a highly stylized symbol utterly removed from reality. Are we supposed to believe that the team’s cheerleaders are popularly known as the Redskinettes because that’s what people think Native Americans called their women?
In an ecstatic Pittsburgh, baseball fans have been waving black flags with skulls and crossbones to root on their surprising Pirates. No one stops to object that the Barbary pirates did terrible things centuries ago, as do Somali pirates today, and therefore everyone in Pittsburgh is making light of murder and mayhem on the high seas. This would obviously be an absurd overinterpretation of an innocent team nickname and the good-natured spiritedness surrounding it.
But absurd overinterpretation is endemic to the anti-Redskins case. Psychologist Michael Friedman, Ph.D., seriously maintains, “Not only does the use of this slur risk causing direct damage to the mental and physical health of our country’s Native American population, it also puts us all at risk for both participating in and being harmed by ongoing prejudice.” On the website Salon, English professor Steven Salaita argues that the nickname involves “the peculiar disquiet of a whiteness perceived to be in decline.”
This would be news to Redskins fans, who are evidently feeling a rather mundane disquiet over a 1-3 start and the state of star quarterback Robert Griffin III’s surgically repaired knee. Sometimes football is just football.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.