What’s in a name? In the case of the Washington Redskins, a lot of history — and an irrefutable ethnic slur that ought to embarrass the National Football League enough to finally force some action.
Citing the speed with which the National Basketball Assn. reacted to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racially charged remarks about African Americans, 50 U.S. senators on Thursday urged the NFL to put pressure on Redskins owner Dan Snyder to drop the franchise’s offensive name.
It is regrettable that Virginia’s two Democratic senators, who represent a large portion of the team’s fan base, opted not to sign the letter. (Republicans, for some reason, were not invited to sign.) Tim Kaine said he supports the name change but didn’t like the tone; if so, maybe he should have sent his own concurring letter. Mark R. Warner’s office said he didn’t think it “was for Congress to dictate what the league does” and that “team names will change to reflect the times,” implying the problem will resolve itself.
Warner is right in one regard: It is not up to Congress to dictate this change. But this was not a piece of legislation; it was a personal statement of 50 senators’ objections to a patently racist term. It’s hard not to conclude that Kaine and Warner, unlike Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, put fear of losing fan votes ahead of taking a principled stand.
And it is a slur. Defenders of the name point to an etymology that began with Native Americans calling themselves “red skins” to differentiate themselves from the European settlers, the “white skins.” Those linguistic roots, however, do not trump the evolution of the term into an ethnic slur; it’s been a pejorative for a very long time. The National Congress of American Indians and other tribal organizations have strongly objected to the term, and as targets of the slur, they are in the best position to call it so.
The team has been called the Redskins since moving from Boston in 1937. That’s 77 years; we don’t think a team called the “Darkies” would have been tolerated for that long, although there’s really not much difference. The team’s owners have complained over the years that renaming the team would anger fans and make meaningless the millions of dollars that have been spent marketing the team. To which we respond: It’s past time for a change. Cut your losses.
We should note too that the NFL, as a business association, is tax exempt (though the individual teams are not), which means American taxpayers are an unwilling party to this embarrassment. This page has argued before that Snyder should drop the offensive name, and we renew that call now. Change the name, and end the insult.