WASHINGTON – The ongoing debate over the name of Washington’s NFL franchise has led a growing number of media organizations and journalists to forgo using what many consider a racial slur.
NBC’s Bob Costas called the name “an insult, a slur,” during a recent Monday Night Football game between Washington’s team and the Dallas Cowboys. Peter King and his site The MMQB have stopped using it. Slate, the Washington City Paper, USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan and others also have stopped using the name.
“Our view is that this name is a slur,” said Slate editor David Plotz. “You wouldn’t tolerate it if it were a slur of a different ethnic group. The only reason we tolerate it is because of the mythical element of America’s past. It’s a slur and it’s an embarrassment. When you change language you change behavior.”
While still a relatively small contingent, Slate and others raise ethical questions about the role of journalists in public debates. The choice to forgo the name also creates the potential for economic consequences for the team and the NFL if enough news outlets were to boycott the name.
Some organizations – like The Oregonian and The Seattle Times – have longstanding policies limiting the name’s use.
“The words we use in the marketplace of ideas are influenced by the words that journalists choose to use,” said Kelly McBride, a journalism ethics expert at Poynter, which specializes in journalism education. “To the extent that journalists can change the marketplace for the better, I’m all for it.”
McBride referenced the way the media helped lessen the use of “negro” and other phrases.
“I think that sometimes journalism is supposed to lead rather than follow, and this may be one of those cases,” she said.
Others, like National Review writer Rich Lowry, believe the media is pushing too hard.
“I don’t think there’s any great outcry across the nation over this,” he said. “I think it’s been driven by a few high profile media outlets. I don’t think most people are deeply concerned that the Washington R——- are still called the Washington R——-.”
But the refusal to use the name by some in the media could put economic pressure on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Washington team owner Dan Snyder. According to several reports, Goodell and Snyder met Tuesday to discuss the name.
“I would guess the way this would go down is that the pressure would be applied to the NFL,” said Mike Lewis, an associate professor of marketing at Emory University. “The pressure would be exerted at the league level and then flow down to Dan Snyder. The NFL is a giant economic entity and an incredibly powerful tool for advertisers to reach a male demographic.”
Lewis, who has done extensive research on the economics of Native American mascots, estimates that a media blackout of the name could hurt the organization in the advertising arena.
The Washington City Paper made the decision to stop using the name a year ago, said Managing Editor Jonathan L. Fischer.
“We feel that the team’s name is a racial epithet, whether or not there are people of Native American heritage who are offended by that,” he said.
Jeff Rosen, assistant managing editor for sports at the Kansas City Star (home to the Kansas City Chiefs), said the publication’s policy on not printing Washington’s name goes back a decade.
“Some people find it offensive, some don’t,” he said. “Even if a portion of Native Americans believe it to be an insulting term, there’s no need to print it on a regular basis or use it at all.”
Rosen saw a distinction between Washington’s name and the Chiefs.
“The term chief in and of itself isn’t considered a racial slur,” he said. “You can argue that it is a Native American term, but it’s not similar to calling somebody of color an offensive name.”
USA Today’s Brennan said that after following the reporting on the name controversy, she decided to stop using it.
“Just like everyone else, I’m a consumer of news,” she said. “I started to think about it more and more. And it just made sense to do it now. It’s not a cause, it’s a column.”
In addition to Brennan, others who have stopped using the name include ESPN’s fantasy sports analyst Matthew Berry and Kevin Blackistone, a long-time sports columnist and panelist on ESPN’s “Around the Horn.” (Note: Blackistone is the Shirley Povich Chair in Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, which runs Capital News Service.)
At most news outlets, columnists are given greater freedom than news reporters to express themselves. That’s why columnists like Brennan can choose not to use the name even though their organizations often continue to use it in sports news stories.
The Washington Post, ESPN and the Associated Press are among the organizations that continue to use the name, usually saying they will call the team by its official name.
The Associated Press Stylebook, the language standard many journalists adhere to, has no plans to restrict use of the name, a spokesman said in an email.
ESPN – which bills itself as “the worldwide leader in sports” – also uses the name.
“We use the marks and nicknames as utilized by the teams, leagues and conferences we cover,” said David Scott, ESPN’s public relations director, in an emailed statement.
Washington Post Deputy Sports Editor Matt Rennie had a similar take: "We don't have a written policy. As the issue's been more under scrutiny, it's been discussed. We've allowed our columnists to make their own choices. We're not going to avoid using (the name) in news stories as long as it's the name of the team."
McBride believes the name will never entirely be phased out in the media.
“Some of them will (use it) and some of them won’t,” she said. “Some people will cling to that name as a sign of refusal to give into political correctness. It’s a reflection of our society.”
Lewis thinks that a name change is the shrewdest business move Snyder can make.
“I would totally embrace all the differences of opinions and put it out there that we’re going to maintain the tradition associated with the team and come up with a set of symbols that will make the city of Washington proud and be acceptable to the groups in opposition,” he said. “He can easily turn this into a win-win-win situation.”
Public perception has been mixed. A May Associated Press-GfK poll found that most of those surveyed were in favor of keeping the name, while an October SurveyUSA poll sponsored by the Oneida Nation found that most of those who responded believed a Native American person would have the right to feel offended if called that name.
Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Kory Stamper said that in Webster’s New International Dictionary Second Edition in 1934, the word was not labeled offensive. By 1961, the third edition of Webster’s dictionary listed the word as a “usually offensive” term.
“For at least the last 50 years, r—— has been taken to generally be offensive, and its use has correspondingly declined,” she said.
President Barack Obama told the Associated Press in an interview Oct. 5 that he would “think about changing” the name if he owned the team.
Four days later, Snyder sent a letter to season-ticket holders, saying he “respects the opinions of those who disagree…but we cannot ignore our 81-year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country.”
Tony Wyllie, the team’s senior vice president of communications, said to refer back to Snyder’s letter for the organization's thoughts on the issue.
Emory University’s Lewis said he would be surprised if the name was still in use 10 or 15 years from now. The word could potentially be on its way out of the cultural lexicon.
“If the R——- were to change their name, it’s not as if the word itself would cease to exist,” Stamper said. “But given the decline in its general use, it’s already a word whose heyday looks to be over.”