The Washington Redskins and the Potential for a Better Identity

It’s a little hard to believe that, in a culture so obsessed with political correctness and respect for all people, a team name like the Washington Redskins persists and can, in fact, be staunchly defended by large swathes of the populace. This month, amid rumors that a name change could be in the offing, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder wrote an open letter to the team’s fans reaffirming his commitment to the name. “When I consider the Washington Redskins name,” he writes, “I think of what it stands for. I think of the Washington Redskins traditions and pride I want to share with my three children, just as my father shared with me… We are Redskins Nation, and we owe it to our fans and coaches and players, past and present, to preserve that heritage.”

The irony is, of course, that Snyder uses the proud heritage of his team (81 years and counting, he points out) to defend the demeaning of the much richer heritage of Native Americans. He does so knowing that most of the American public is on his side. An AP poll conducted in May of this year found 79% of respondents in support of the Redskins’ keeping their name. Only 11% thought the name ought to be changed.

It’s not that most Redskins fans really want to degrade Native Americans. I myself grew up in Georgia as an Atlanta Braves fan, and I’ve chopped and chanted with the best of them at Turner Field, blissfully unaware that I was doing anything offensive or tasteless. Instead, most fans of teams like the Redskins, the Braves, or the Cleveland Indians who defend such names are more concerned with the identity of something they care deeply about. We are a culture that identifies deeply with the sports teams we support. As Dan Snyder points out in his letter, we often associate our teams with childhood memories, with our families, and with admirable virtues like loyalty, courage, and community. To alter the iconography of those institutions would be like altering our own personal histories.

The trouble comes when we are asked to lay down a part of ourselves out of deference and respect for someone else. It’s certainly not easy, but that kind of humble self-sacrifice is in many ways the basis of a just and peaceful society. I imagine that whichever major sports franchise is the first to take that courageous step will reap many benefits that they can’t as yet foresee. They will, in fact, be rewriting their own identity as something even more meaningful, respectful, and courageous.

That’s a team I could get behind.

About Ethan McCarthy

Ethan McCarthy lives in Highwood, Illinois, with his wife Jenni and their two children. They like literature, music, and listening to the Atlanta Braves on the radio. He currently works in an elementary school special education classroom.

  • Thursday1

    I keep wondering why this doesn’t get through to people: sports teams never choose a name that is demeaning to them. In fact, quite the opposite: the names are always intended to be positive.

  • Thursday1

    Article on the origins of the term:

    Apparently, the term was first used by native people to describe themselves. In our day and age, referring to someone by a body part has become offensive, a sort of reduction of the person, but this isn’t universal in all cultures: you can proudly identify yourself by some distinguishing bodily feature. (“Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”)

  • Ethan McCarthy

    Thursday, you’re right that “redskin” has been used by Native Americans of themselves, but it also has a long and sordid history as a pejorative term used by white settlers of the cultures they were so callously devastating.

    So no, it might not be as straightforward as other racist terms, but given the long history of mistreatment of Native Americans/cultural imperialism, I don’t think we’re in a good position to throw around terms that were so often used to demean them, and then insist that they shouldn’t be offended, or that we’re somehow “honoring” them by naming our sports franchises after them. I think it’s a chance to take the high road and show some respect and deference.

  • The Irish Atheist

    I’d lead a campaign to convince Notre Dame to change their name from the Fighting Irish, but it’s never going to happen. Because white Americans can pretend to be whatever nationality they want and no one can get offended. Not even those who’s nationality is being appropriated. It doesn’t matter that the caricature of a ginger leprechaun and the focus on the worst part of our history is rather degrading.

    No one appreciates being a mascot.

  • Ethan McCarthy

    I’m gonna assume you’re being facetious.

  • The Irish Atheist

    You’re going to assume wrong. And it’s rather telling that you would think so.

    Notre Dame wanted to play a football game in Galway so that they could return to their roots. Galway wouldn’t let them. Neither would Kilarney. You really think I’m the only Irishman who watches the Americans bastardise our culture and gets angry with it? Notre Dame’s reduction of us into ugly, squatting, violent leprechauns isn’t flattering, as much as you may convince yourself that it is.

    But of course, I’m being facetious. Because I don’t like being mocked, and neither do my own people.

  • Ethan McCarthy

    Notre Dame’s only intention in naming themselves the Fighting Irish was to honor their rich Catholic history and what they took to be honorable Irish traits of tenacity, courage etc. If they’re being simplistic, fine. But it’s hardly on a par with the Redskins controversy. There’s no long and ugly history of Americans mistreating and displacing the Irish. On the whole I’d say Notre Dame did credit to their Irish connections rather than otherwise.

  • The Irish Atheist

    Much as you may like to, I won’t get into a whole ‘who had it worse in history.’ On the American continent, yes, the Native Americans had it much worse, no comparison. That doesn’t change the fact that Notre Dame is mocking us. If they wanted to represent the honourable parts of us, why would they focus on the ‘fighting’ part? Ireland was torn apart by violence for hundreds of years. It’s something that we consider a black mark upon our history, not something for the Americans to reduce to frat boys playing around on a football pitch.

    Hate to break it to you, but not all Irish people are Catholic. And not all Catholic people are Irish. Which renders your ‘rich Catholic history’ defense into something that’s completely non-sensical.

    No, I’m nowhere near as offended as a Native American is about white people calling themselves Redskins. But the cultural vandalism that Americans are so fond of is still something I’m going to speak out against.

    As for trying to represent the positive qualities of tenacity and courage…isn’t that the very defense that the Redskins are using? That they’re focusing on the positive qualities? It sounds just as weak and futile when you say it about us, especially when Notre Dame’s depiction and behaviour speaks the exact opposite.