I think there are two offenses here that deserve to be distinguished.
The first offense is using a racial slur like “Redskins” as a team name. I think there’s no way to keep that from being offensive, no way to use a slur “in a highly respectful manner,” as League spokesman Brian McCarthy said the team was doing. Despite the transition costs, and the possible disappointment of some fans, there’s a lot more to be gained than lost by changing the team name. It’ll have to be changed sooner or later, and the sooner the team responds, the more credit it will get for responding.
The second offense is simply using a term that is used to describe Native Americans – Indians, Braves, Blackhawks, etc. – to describe an athletic team. Unlike “Redskins,” these terms aren’t intrinsically disrespectful. But of course the team rosters include very few Native Americans. It’s certainly arguable that these team names are being used in a disrespectful way.
Is it possible to use them in a respectful way without actually changing the names? If I were managing one of these teams, I think I’d start asking Native American organizations how to do that. What changes in uniform imagery, song lyrics, merchandise logos, and the like would help? What could the team do proactively to help correct stereotypes of Native Americans more broadly? How could the team make itself useful on behalf of Native American causes?
If a team intends to keep using a Native American name for its own purposes, it ought to find ways to ensure that its decision to do so does more good than harm in the opinion of the people whose name it is appropriating.
I expect the Redskins will be gone (as a name) in less than five years. The others may earn the right to keep their names. If not, they’ll be gone too, in five to ten years.
Whether a team changes its name or not, it should acknowledge publicly that the current name gives offense to some people, and that it wishes that weren’t so. I’d like to see a team management say something like this: “There is a long, long tradition in our country of using Native American imagery as entertainment. White children no longer go trick-or-treating in blackface, but they still go wearing headdresses and carrying tomahawks. No one would ever name a sports team the Jews, but most of us find Indians, Braves, and Blackhawks inoffensive. We get it that that’s what’s most offensive – that most of us don’t even realize it’s offensive. We don’t mean it to be offensive, but it is. Can we find ways to make up for that, to make it okay in the minds of Native Americans? We’re going to try. And if we can’t, sooner or later we’re going to have to change our name.”
Copyright © 2013 by Peter M. Sandman