It’s a little hard to believe that, in a culture so obsessed with political correctness and respect for all people, a team name like the Washington Redskins persists and can, in fact, be staunchly defended by large swathes of the populace. This month, amid rumors that a name change could be in the offing, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder wrote an open letter to the team’s fans reaffirming his commitment to the name. “When I consider the Washington Redskins name,” he writes, “I think of what it stands for. I think of the Washington Redskins traditions and pride I want to share with my three children, just as my father shared with me… We are Redskins Nation, and we owe it to our fans and coaches and players, past and present, to preserve that heritage.”
The irony is, of course, that Snyder uses the proud heritage of his team (81 years and counting, he points out) to defend the demeaning of the much richer heritage of Native Americans. He does so knowing that most of the American public is on his side. An AP poll conducted in May of this year found 79% of respondents in support of the Redskins’ keeping their name. Only 11% thought the name ought to be changed.
It’s not that most Redskins fans really want to degrade Native Americans. I myself grew up in Georgia as an Atlanta Braves fan, and I’ve chopped and chanted with the best of them at Turner Field, blissfully unaware that I was doing anything offensive or tasteless. Instead, most fans of teams like the Redskins, the Braves, or the Cleveland Indians who defend such names are more concerned with the identity of something they care deeply about. We are a culture that identifies deeply with the sports teams we support. As Dan Snyder points out in his letter, we often associate our teams with childhood memories, with our families, and with admirable virtues like loyalty, courage, and community. To alter the iconography of those institutions would be like altering our own personal histories.
The trouble comes when we are asked to lay down a part of ourselves out of deference and respect for someone else. It’s certainly not easy, but that kind of humble self-sacrifice is in many ways the basis of a just and peaceful society. I imagine that whichever major sports franchise is the first to take that courageous step will reap many benefits that they can’t as yet foresee. They will, in fact, be rewriting their own identity as something even more meaningful, respectful, and courageous.
That’s a team I could get behind.