What's in a name? For the Washington Redskins, it’s tradition, a popular fight song, a heated rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys, and other tribal symbols, chants and images.
But a rising tide of controversy may change all that, with many pushing the team to change its 80-year-old name, believing the term “Redskins” is offensive and degrading. The opposition recently came to the forefront when members of the Oneida Indian Nation met with NFL executives on Oct. 30 to discuss the issue. Should the Washington Redskins change their name? The AFRO Sports Desk represented by Sports Editor Perry Green and sports journalist Stephen D. Riley debate the question with Executive Editor Avis Thomas Lester and Editor Aaron Cahall.
Stephen D. Riley: There's history behind the Washington Redskins, both good and bad. The type of fanatic support expressed from the inner depths of Washington, D.C. to the suburbs of surrounding Maryland and Virginia could easily be compared to the following of the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees and even the dreaded Cowboys. Changing the name means changing the culture, the clothes and possibly the camaraderie felt amongst fans. An alteration of the popular burgundy and gold color scheme would cripple the team's identity, destroying years of memories. I don’t want to see that happen.
Perry Green: I don’t want to see that happen either, Riley. As you’ve pointed out, Washington’s franchise name and logo are tied to the heart of the district forever. I can’t even imagine D.C. sports without thinking of the legacy of the Redskins franchise. What would NFL Sundays be like in the district without hearing fans shout, “Hail to the Redskins?” Or what would the city be like without seeing the legendary Zema “Chief Z” Williams, the most well-known Redskins fan of them all? Chief Zee has spent the last 35 years attending every single home game dressed up in Native American attire, leading Washington’s loyal fan base in cheers.
I understand that there are some Native Americans that are offended by the name. But there may just as many, if not more, Native Americans, that don't mind the name at all. A recent USA Today poll found widespread support for the team name and logo, with even 80 percent of Native Americans supporting the name and logo and in favor of Washington keeping both. I think it's important to consider intent and how the term, “Redskins” is being used. The Washington franchise has claimed that they use the term with respect and honor for the dignity and bravery of the American natives culture.
Avis Thomas Lester: You can’t use a pejorative name as a representation for a team when there are people, to whom the name refers, offended by it. Period.
Why is there so much debate about this? In a world where we are politically correct to the point of distraction about absolutely everything, why are some people standing so tough in the one situation in recent years where the complainants have a legitimate case? You can dance around it all you want, but the word “redskin” is pejorative. Supporters of keeping the name gripe that there are other team names that refer to Native Americans: warriors, chiefs, braves, whatever. Those words aren’t insults. A warrior is someone who is ready to do battle. A chief is someone in charge. A brave was once referred to as a warrior or a chief in the making. Redskin was the word that I heard as a child watching cowboy movies that was used to refer to the Native American warrior, chief or brave who sent the White cowboys packing with arrows or buckshot in their behinds when they invaded the Native Americans’ turf as they “conquered” the “Wild West.” It wasn’t positive. It wasn’t indicative of pride or strength, as the keep-the-name camp proclaims.
Aaron Cahall: As Stephen and Perry explained, there’s a real sense of pride in the team’s name and many fans consider it part of their personal history. But there’s such a thing as being on the wrong side of social history. The Redskins’ original owner, George Preston Marshall, was an inveterate, virulent racist who changed the team’s name from the neutral Boston Braves to the more pejorative Redskins before moving them to D.C. in the 1930s. Marshall long refused allowing Black players to play for the team, famously remarking that he would do so when the Harlem Globetrotters signed Whites. According to one account, he proposed to his wife amid an elaborate recreation of a Southern plantation, complete with actors as field slaves singing “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” When he died, he stipulated that a $6 million bequest be used for anything except “racial integration.”
This is the legacy that Washington football fans are so eager to protect? Both the St. John’s University Redmen and the Miami University of Ohio Redskins dumped their nicknames in the 1990s, becoming the Red Storm and RedHawks, respectively. For the NFL’s Redskins to cling to theirs, and continue a history of racism for the sake of not having to buy a new jersey or learn a new fight song, is unthinkable.