The debate on whether Washington’s pro football team should continue using the name “Redskins” is clearly changing with the times. Last week, even President Barack Obama waded into the fray.
“If I were the owner of the team,” Obama said to the Associated Press, “and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
A few days after Obama’s remarks, Redskins tight end Fred Davis said: “I could see how it could be kind of offensive.” In July, ex-Redskins Art Monk and Darrell Green conceded those who find the name offensive have a valid point.
But it isn’t just Redskins players whose attitudes are changing. In May, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder said bluntly to USA Today: “We’ll never change the name. It’s simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
But this week, Snyder, while not budging, took a more conciliatory stance.
“I’ve listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name,” Snyder wrote in an open letter. “But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too.”
But in trying to speak for all Native Americans, Snyder oversteps his bounds. He frequently cites a 2004 Annenberg poll that found almost 90 percent approval for the name among respondents identifying themselves as Indians. But the poll used a minuscule sample size — 768 people — and never determined whether its self-identified Indian respondents were active tribal members. The National Congress of American Indians, with its 1.2 million members, has said the name is “disparaging” and “perpetuates a centuries-old stereotype of Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages.”
And “what the name means,” to quote Snyder, is nothing to be proud of. In 1932, then-Redskins owner George Preston Marshall named the team in honor of coach William Dietz, a supposed Oglala Sioux Indian. But Dietz, it turns out, was no Indian; he stole a missing Sioux man’s identity so he could fake Indian ancestry on his draft registration and avoid military service.
Marshall’s record was equally dubious. The last NFL owner to sign black players, Marshall relented in 1962 only after the NFL threatened to cancel his stadium lease. When Marshall died, his will created the Redskins Foundation on the condition that it would never support “the principle of racial integration in any form.”
Regardless of whether the team’s fans take offense to the moniker “Redskins,” it’s a racial slur. It should be consigned to the dustbin of history, not held up as a proud tradition.