Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

Tradition no excuse for keeping Redskins’ name

sprovost@thetribunenews.comJuly 17, 2013 

What is in a name? A lot more than you might think.

Ten members of Congress sent the owner of the Washington Redskins a letter recently, asking that he change the name of the team. “Native Americans throughout the country consider the ‘R-word’ a racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word’ among African Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos,” they wrote.

Owner Daniel Snyder’s response?

“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use all caps.”

Fans of the team come down somewhere in the middle. A recent poll of the Washington-area sports fans found that 61 percent of them like the name … but (here’s the interesting part) more than half of those — 56 percent — find “Redskin” an inappropriate way to describe a Native American. But, apparently, perfectly fine when you’re talking about a member of a football team.

This isn’t the same as naming your team the Braves or the Warriors or the Vikings or the Fighting Irish, which connote attributes such as courage or ferocity. Sports teams are supposed to be fierce, after all. Calling UC Irvine the Anteaters or UC Santa Cruz the Banana Slugs never made much sense to me for this reason.

The R-word isn’t inherently fierce or awe-inspiring, either. On the contrary, it’s a racial slur. It’s almost impossible to conceive of someone using the W-word or the Nword as a team nickname. But for some reason, fans think “Redskins” is just fine, even though it falls into exactly the same category.

Why?

One word: history.

Imagine for a moment that no team by that name exists. Imagine that, instead, the National Football League has awarded an expansion team to Washington in 2013, and the owner proposes adopting the R-word as a nickname. Do you think it would be approved?

Not on your life.

It’s all about history. People become accustomed to team names and, after a while, they stop thinking about what they mean. The name Jazz was chosen for a pro basketball team when it was located in New Orleans. It later moved to Utah and retained the name. Does anyone think about Bourbon Street or Pete Fountain whenever they see the name? Of course not.

The same thing happened with the Los Angeles Dodgers. They got their name when the franchise was in Brooklyn, and people from Manhattan used to call Brooklyn residents “Trolley Dodgers.” Today, the team is in Los Angeles, which replaced its own trolley system with diesel buses five years after the Dodgers moved there. But fans of the team don’t picture trolleys when they see the team name anyway; they picture Dodger Stadium or Clayton Kershaw or the color blue.

There might be ariot if someone wanted to change the name “Dodgers” to something else, but not because of anything to do with trolleys. It’s a question of familiarity and history. The same is true for the name Lakers, which was bestowed upon L.A.’s first pro basketball team when it was born in Minnesota, “the Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

So how did the Washington Redskins get their name? Like the teams mentioned above, they were born in another city — in this case, Boston. At the time (1932), it was popular to name football teams after their baseball counterparts. At various times, the NFL had football teams called the New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yanks and Boston Braves.

(Baseball’s Braves later moved to Atlanta, and while St. Louis at one time had baseball and football teams called the Cardinals, the latter actually originated in Chicago and wasn’t named after its baseball counterpart.)

The football Braves, under the ownership of a man named George Preston Marshall, initially played in the same ballpark used by the baseball Braves. The next year, however, they moved their home field across town to Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. By changing the name to Redskins, they managed to identify with their new home park while retaining their original imagery. Marshall moved the team to Washington a few years later.

There’s no doubt Marshall was a racist. Chicago Bears owner George Halas wanted to sign a UCLA star by the name of Kenny Washington to a contract in 1939. Many people considered him the best college football player in the country. One problem: Washington was black, and the NFL wasn’t integrated at the time. Marshall wanted it to make sure it stayed that way, so he blocked Halas from signing Washington.

In fact, even though Kenny Washington eventually broke the NFL’s color barrier in 1947 (the same year former UCLA teammate Jackie Robinson did so in baseball), Marshall maintained an all-white roster for his team until 1962. He finally relented when Attorney General Robert Kennedy told him the city of Washington wouldn’t renew his lease at D.C. Stadium unless he integrated the team.

So, if you’re talking about history, it hasn’t all been a point of pride for Washington’s NFL team. And while I understand the fondness for longstanding tradition, such fondness should never be an excuse for racism or insensitivity.

That’s what’s happening now. And even those who like the name admit it wouldn’t be the end of the world. The same poll quoted above found that 82 percent of the fans said it wouldn’t make a difference in their level of support if the team changed its name.

It’s not a big deal to them, and it’s a very big deal to a lot of Native Americans — and people who believe racial slurs have no place in organized athletics.

Respect should not take an act of Congress.

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.

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