Should the Washington Redskins Change Their Name?

By on October 9, 2013 9:08 am
Institute of Sports Law and Ethics

Perhaps the tougher question is, should all teams with school, mascot or trade name references to Native Americans at any level change their names to eliminate such references?  Are there ethical issues at stake here?

For the purpose of this posting, we’ll discuss only the Washington Redskins, as that franchise has attracted the most notice lately regarding this issue.

Full disclosure:  I’m a male of Irish descent whose grandparents came to the USA on the boat at the turn of the 20th Century.  Although I understand that the Irish were discriminated against in this country back in the day, I have never experienced discrimination directed at me.  I have a high regard for Notre Dame University, but think the Fighting Irish leprechaun mascot is kind of lame.  That’s the extent of my personal stake in this fight, so it’s not much of a stake, and I would never compare whatever hardships the Irish suffered to those experienced by Native Americans.  But, I will share a few ideas and I’m interested in your thoughts.

Certainly, there are plenty of folks on each side of this issue who have expressed their opinions in good faith.   For example, I’m a big fan of Rick Reilly, but found his recent article on this topic somewhat puzzling.  See this article for interesting responses to Reilly’s remarks.

One of the things I was taught as a kid was that participation in sports is the great equalizer.  Hard work and talent are rewarded, more so than how much money your family has or where you live.  I was also taught that sports should be inclusive.

Without analyzing the validity of various surveys that have been conducted on this topic, it seems to me that we can and should accept the premise that there are a lot of Native Americans who are bothered by the reference to Redskins, and there are a lot of Native Americans who are not bothered by this reference.  I don’t think I have any standing to tell a Native American how he or she is supposed to feel about it.  But, I am struck by the degree to which the Oneida Indian Nation, for one, has responded.

I think we also can accept the premise that it is not up to the owner of the Washington Redskins to decide whether any folks should be offended by the team’s name, nor is it up to him to conclude that because he intends no disrespect, Native Americans necessarily should feel no disrespect.

I think it is important to note why the NCAA allows Florida State University to use the nickname Seminoles.  This resolution seems to me to be a common-sense approach to that specific case.  Clearly, the use of the term Redskins could not be addressed on the same basis of specificity and uniqueness as was the case with Florida State and the approval of the use of their name by the Seminoles.

It is interesting that in the mid 1990s, the owner of the then-NBA team the Washington Bullets changed the name to the Wizards because he was sensitive to the high level of firearm violence in the Washington D.C. area and elsewhere.

So what do I think should happen with the Washington Redskins?  What would I do if I were the owner?

Just change the name to something that doesn’t offend.  I’m not a member of the PC police.  I really don’t pay much attention to nicknames or logos.  But there are folks who do sincerely care about this particular nickname, and who have standing to complain.  The Oneida Indian Nation, for one.

Why back yourself into a corner, as the current owner has done, and say you will NEVER change the name?  Why not just say something like this:

“I never intended to disrespect anyone by continuing on with our traditional nickname.  I thought the name conveyed an attitude of fierceness to reflect the competitiveness of this fierce sport.

I now understand that some Native Americans do feel disrespected by our nickname, and I now understand why they feel that way.

I regret that genuine feeling of disrespect felt by some Native Americans, and rather than allow this to further serve as a polarizing and hurtful issue, I’ve decided to change the name.   I’m mindful of our franchise’s significant role in our nation’s capital, and I want our great franchise to be viewed in a positive manner by all.”

That’s it, short and sweet.  Hold a nationwide contest to determine three finalists for a new nickname.  Make it a positive thing, not this current symbol of divisiveness.

So that’s what I would do.

What about you?

Please contact me at mgilleran@scu.edu.

Thanks.

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