The ‘Redskins’ should go

Rush Limbaugh, who on his radio show has referred to Native Americans as “Injuns,” was rejected as a pro football team owner because of his racial insensitivity. Yet the National Football League doesn’t seem bothered that one of its franchises uses an ethnic slur as a team name, one so foul that even Limbaugh would hesitate to utter it.

An etymological study determined that the term “red skin” was first used in the early 19th century by Native Americans themselves, as a way to distinguish their people from the “white skins.” But over the years, the term has taken on ugly connotations. A football team called the Crackers or the Darkies probably wouldn’t be tolerated for long, yet the Washington Redskins have been using their offensive moniker since moving from Boston in 1937, and current owner Daniel Snyder has ignored calls to change it.

Attempts to get the courts to make him do so have failed, culminating this month when the Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal of a 17-year-old trademark case against the team. That’s just as well -- court mandates of political correctness can conflict with the 1st Amendment and are rarely a good idea. But Snyder and the league should know that offending their customers isn’t a good idea either.


The Redskins’ lawyers have argued that the team has invested millions of dollars in marketing its name, so changing it now would result in significant losses. Moreover, many die-hard fans would undoubtedly be miffed. But there are ways to minimize the trauma. Washington could borrow a page from Stanford University, which jettisoned its Indian mascot in 1972 and later changed its team name to the Cardinal (the color, not the bird); a switch to the Washington Reds would involve taking just four letters off the letterhead. The Kansas City Chiefs retired their tasteless Indian brave mascot (actually, his horse, Warpaint, was the mascot; the headdress-wearing rider was more of an accessory) in 1989 and replaced him with the KC Wolf. That’s not as satisfying as a name change, but it’s a start.

Sports teams with Native American names tend to use derogatory images and symbols, which is why the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2001 urged schools to stop the practice. Plenty do so anyway -- the San Diego State University Aztecs are a local example -- but very few professional or college teams have names as pejorative as “redskins.” The Washington franchise’s name is an embarrassment to the nation’s capital and a blight on the NFL.