Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What's In A Name?

As the proud owner of a t-shirt boasting “the sports team from my area is superior to the sports team from your area,” I freely admit that my sports allegiances are tenuous and provincial. My fandom is geographical (and I guess loosely ancestral). I’m a Brewers, Packers and Bucks fan - in that order - simply because I grew up in Milwaukee and those are my parents’ preferred teams. Since Milwaukee doesn’t have an NHL team, neither do I, beyond a soft spot for the Bruins (I live in Boston) and the Blues (I have family in St. Louis and have attended a few games there). If someone asks me to say something about myself, my Brewers fandom and attendant sadness will come to the fore pretty quickly. 

My teams are a function of my hometown, but I don’t call myself a Milwaukee fan. If forced to defend the city to snobby East Coast types I will vehemently declare its virtues - Beer! Summerfest! Creepy Zombie Fonz Statue! Still More Beer! - but still I call myself a Brewers fan. That’s where the identity lies, with the team, and specifically the team name. And so, clinging to a team name like a pacifier, I empathize with Washington Redskins fans who are struggling on the wrong side of history in sports’ cause du jour.

First things first: the Redskins moniker is offensive and should be changed. I would take the position that our silly little blog in the big silly blogosphere won’t use the word, but that’s a silly stand to take. Everyone knows the Redskins moniker, an obvious epithet with a shaky handle on pigmentation, is offensive because context matters. There are very few opportunities, for instance, where the N-word would have been acceptable for Token White Wide Receiver Riley Cooper to say. Certainly, a hostile confrontation with a bunch of black guys at a country music concert does not fit that bill. The same is true of the word Redskin.

It may seem less offensive (and yes, I’m writing “N-word” while I also write “Redskin.” Feel free to note that) because there are less advocates for Native American rights, despite equal gaps in socioeconomic standing. Unlike with people of African descent, America didn’t economically depend on the continued existence of the Native people and so basically wiped them out, rather than enslaving and systematically denying them rights. Still, genocide based on skin color is built into that word’s context. Even if an oft-cited (and methodologically unsound) study claims that 90% of Native Americans are fine with the name, that still leaves 10% who are not. That’s not insignificant. 

I don’t know many Redskins fans, but if I know the conservatism of sports fans, they are not a happy bunch right now. And I get it. I’m a Brewers fan because I grew up in Milwaukee, but I would have a hard time rooting for the Milwaukee Antelopes, even if it were the same franchise with the same players in the same stadium run by the same people. That’s a stupid name I’ve chosen in my hypothetical and even admittedly a stupid position for me to take, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s hard to give up something so easily identifiable, such an easy shorthand for a community. We’re Brewers fans, not Antelopes fans, dammit!

The Redskins as a franchise have a history, too, an ugly history featuring some of the least sympathetic owners in sports but also Super Bowl victories and Joe Gibbs and Joe Theismann’s leg exploding into 8,000 pieces on national TV and modern day sad-Joe Theismann shilling for peepee medication on late-night cable. Those hard-hitting ‘80s Skins teams are Steve Sabol NFL Films Teams with gruff voiceover pre-packaged, and they are firmly part of the history of the league. The team’s name is offensive but the team exists in a greater historical context, too. I wonder if we swapped the rootless and identity-free Jaguars’ history for the Redskins’ if this would be less of an argument.

It is an argument, though, and the team is not helping. Neither is Rick Reilly and his verging-on-spectrum levels of insensitivity in service of writing terrible puns. Their defense of the name is essentially the la-la-la-la I can’t hear you method of argumentation, frequently employed by groups who are obviously in the wrong. Some Native Americans are cool with it! Other high schools use it! Some of my best friends are Native Americans! Ad nauseum.

The team could offer to be an advocate for Native American people (which I’m aware are not a monolithic group). It could use its largesse to funnel help to Native American communities, many of which are struggling. It could admit that our relationship with Native Americans and the word “Redskins” is not positive, that history is complex and it is our duty to grapple with our cultural legacy, and then maybe, I would at least consider changing my position. It won't though, and every time Dan Snyder (for whom I have no empathy even if he stand to lose money by changing the name, which is a dubious idea at best) digs in his heels and trots out another fake Native American Chief to unequivocally speak for all Native Americans that the name is inoffensive, we get further from that point.

Snyder and all those arguing to keep the name could make this a real argument by bringing nuance to it. Yet, by proclaiming Native American people universally fine with the name, by - pardon the phrase - whitewashing our history with that word, they’ve made it a simple binary issue. And viewed in that lens, the name is offensive and needs to go.

Sorry, Skins fans. At least you still have the Washington Bullets.

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