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The "Redskins" Nickname Debate, Part Infinity

With the latest round of scrutiny over the Redskins' nickname, Tom discusses the media's coverage of the topic, as well as a possible solution for those who genuinely care about Native American issues.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I don't think it's earth-shattering news that the Washington Post's coverage of the Redskins nickname issue is fairly one-sided.

Take last Monday, for instance.

First, there was Clinton Yates, who said that it's a "fact" that the team name is a "highly insensitive insult" and, furthermore, that the "defiance" of those who support the name is "disgusting."

Political opinion writer Dana Milbank had a similar take.  He suggested that Dan Snyder shuffle off to "history's dustbin," and that some mysterious, unnamed new owner could change the name after taking control of the team.  "Maybe then we'd win some football games," he zinged, apparently forgetting that the five world championships the franchise has won occurred with the "Redskins" nickname attached.

Mike Wise, who has written myriad columns and hundreds of tweets on the topic, offered yet another perspective.  He issued a proclamation that there will be no more debate on the issue at all.  "The debate over whether a people are denigrated or honored by the name of the Washington NFL team, like the absurd debate over whether the name is a unifying force, is over," Wise said, going on to explain in a victory-lap column that a name change is not only a certainty, but an imminent one (he estimates the name will change within three years).

With that sort of "diverse" opinion emanating on a single day from one of the largest print outlets in the country, who am I to offer any thoughts?

Yet, it's Dallas week, and here I find myself writing about the nickname thing.  Again.

So, here's my "disgusting" take.

I'm fascinated by the way the media (including the blogosphere) has covered - and magnified - the issue.  Take President Obama's recent comments about the nickname as an example.  I'm not concerned by what the president said, I'm interested in how the media received and presented his comments.  Asked by an AP reporter about the "Redskins" nickname, the president opined that he would "think about changing it" if he were the team's owner, going on to acknowledge the legitimacy of the concerns of the people who are offended by the name.

Let's unpack that: If he were the owner of the team, he would think about changing the name.  That's a "maybe" with a contingency at the front end.  In other words, this is a fairly non-committal answer, which isn't a surprising turn-of-phrase coming from a skilled politician.

This is a "glass half-full / half-empty" scenario.  A proponent of keeping the name might see this as a comment that implies all that's necessary is a consideration of (but not necessarily a capitulation to) the views of those who are offended.  An opponent of the name might see it as a clear indication that the president views the name as problematic, and would probably change it if it were up to him.  That seems like a fair assessment.

Yet, many of the headlines generated by the president's comments seemed to overstate the case, taking it a step or two further:

"Obama to Redskins: Get a New Name" (Politico)

"Obama Scolds Redskins" (Wall Street Journal)

"President Obama is not a Fan of the Washington Redskins' Name (Bloomberg Businessweek)

"Calls for Redskins Name Change Grow Louder" (Yahoo!)

"Obama Backs Washington Redskins Name Change" (Christian Science Monitor)

And so on.

In the hands of a motivated media, the half-full glass suddenly overflows, whether the motivation is advocacy of changing the name (in most cases) or making the president look a bit silly by somewhat exaggerating what he actually said.

Either way, name change proponents win.

And, ultimately, that might explain the curious timing of the question from the Associated Press.  In a week in which the nation dealt with a government shut-down, the rollout of the ACA program, a looming debt default, and lingering international affairs issues, just to name a few key topics, the AP asks this of the president.

Why now?  Why not three weeks ago, or three weeks from now?

Probably because the Redskins happened to have a bye week.

Otherwise, the response to the quote may have been drowned out on social media by stories about the actual team and its performance.  Hashtag dilution and all that.  Instead, the quote allowed writers to put finishing touches on articles that have probably been half-written for some time.

Here's my take: We - all of us - decide the potency of words and language.  And, in doing so, context and intent matter.

When most people refer to the "Washington Redskins," their intent is entirely positive (unless they lose to Dallas on Sunday, but that's a different column).  And the best evidence for the origin of the word that we have, from Smithsonian linguistic anthropologist Ives Goddard, is that the word was a self-descriptor used by Native peoples in their dealings with Europeans.  Even the original Slate article announcing that site's decision to stop using "Redskins" concedes the probable accuracy of that history, as well as calling the word "only a bit offensive."

However, many opponents would argue that intent and context don't matter, as if words have some sort of inherent potency beyond the meaning we give to them.  Whether we mean to offend or not, whether the word's origins are as a slur or not, and whether the word is being used in a specific (football-related) context is irrelevant, these critics suggest.

My personal opinion is that this analysis is incorrect.

The potency of words is not a scientific phenomenon that can be measured in the same way we might measure mass or pH level.  The meaning of words is decided collectively, the residue of our cultural attitudes.

To give an extreme example: If you were to yell the most horrible swear word in a given language in a room full of people who knew nothing of that particular tongue, they might look at you strangely and wonder why you were shouting, but they wouldn't be "offended" because they wouldn't even understand the meaning of the sounds coming out of your mouth.

Here, a milder form of that phenomenon holds true.  "Redskins" has been presented as if it's an indisputable fact that it's a racial slur.  You'll see words like "of course" and "clearly" and "obviously" preceding references to it being a slur in columns that advocate for the name to be changed.  And, I'm sure, if everyone where I worked were in total agreement that the name is a slur, I might presume that same clarity and obviousness.

But not everyone does agree.  People react to the name differently.  And, as I said, context and intent matter.

Two of the more frequent arguments I see employed in anti-name articles are as follows:

1. "You wouldn't call a team the 'Washington N***ers.'  Why is 'Washington Redskins' any different?"

2. The word has been used in a negative sense, as in "dirty Redskin," and /or "You wouldn't walk up to a Native American and say, ‘What's up, Redskin,' would you?"

Two problems with those arguments, respectively.  One, as I said, is that the best etymological data we have suggests that the origin  and use of "Redskin" was not as a slur.  It goes without saying that "N***er" has a much different history.  I think even the most dedicated of name opponents would privately admit that equating the two words requires an overstatement of their case.

As for the other point, is that really the test?  If you put "dirty" in front of many words, it will seem nasty.  For example, "Jew" is not a slur, but saying "you dirty Jew" would obviously sound anti-Semitic to just about anyone.  Would I walk up to a Native American and say, "What's up, Redskin?"  Probably not.  But I also wouldn't address a meeting of the NAACP by saying, "What's up, colored people?"

Again: Context and intent.  Not magic words.

I think this entire issue boils down to a few big-picture philosophical questions.

First, is offensiveness alone valid grounds for striking something from popular culture?  Answering that question fully is beyond the scope of this column, so let's assume that the answer to the question is "yes."

If so, then, secondly, what is the criteria by which we deem something offensive enough to be removed?  We know that most of the public isn't offended by "Redskins."  The only comprehensive polling done among Native Americans showed that the vast majority were also fine with the name.  Naturally, critics of the name dismiss that polling on a number of grounds - methodology, recency, etc.

But, as a hypothetical - what if a new poll were commissioned tomorrow, and the results of that poll still showed a majority of Native Americans approve of the name?  As we've seen, there are some who object to the name, but it's entirely unclear if they represent most Native Americans.  The tribes here in Virginia seem broadly supportive of the name, for instance, and the use of the nickname for sports teams by Native populations also provides some insight.

So, what if we conducted that new study, and the results revealed that, say, 80% of Native Americans supported the name?  I'm reasonably certain that the name opponents - the same non-Native opponents who say that non-Natives should have no say in this matter - would still insist that the name be changed.

That raises the essential question: Is something still "racist" even if most of the people in the "group" in play don't agree?  Do we simply allow journalists at top publications to determine what is and what is not racist?  Or, as I said before, is the impact of a word up to all of us to determine collectively?

Mike Wise has said more than once that "If one person is offended, we should all be offended."  While that's quite glib, it is also an impractical rule of thumb in an open society premised in part on a strong belief in free speech.

Truthfully, I think there's much more consensus and desire to press the issue among sportswriters than there is among Native Americans.

The power to control language is among the most potent wielded in any such society. That is why seeking that control, and that power, is so seductive - especially for those who have the platform to effectuate it.

When the media confidently says that this is now a settled issue, do not believe them.  I'm not saying a person shouldn't think the name is offensive.  I'm not saying that a person should think the name is offensive.  What I'm saying is: Decide for yourself, and understand that perfectly reasonable people may come to a different conclusion than you do.

My own view on what the Redskins should do is similar to that of Jeffrey Wright.  Wright, the Washington-born actor known for work in many high-profile films and television shows (currently Boardwalk Empire) claims some Powhatan heritage according to family lore.  Wright favors keeping the nickname, but he also thinks there's a terrific opportunity for outreach by the franchise.

I agree wholeheartedly.  One thing upon which nickname opponents and proponents can find common ground is that the organization has done a poor job of getting its message across or winning on the public-relations front.  A small part of that has to do with the personal animosity much of the media seems to feel toward Dan Snyder, but the lion's share has to do with missteps by the Redskins organization.

If the team's argument is that they use the name as a symbol of strength, courage, and dignity, then I believe they should live up to that premise of "respect."  And not just financially.  Donations to Native causes might be a good start, but, more importantly, the team should get involved directly with tribal activities in Virginia and Maryland (to the extent the tribes would welcome that).  They should raise awareness of the real issues like poverty and rampant alcoholism that tribes across the country still face today, particularly the Native Americans who live on reservations.  Even if most of these interactions take place beyond the view of the media or the team's publicity machine, the franchise should embrace Native Americans in a meaningful, genuine way, for reasons that go beyond PR.

A sincere effort on that front would bolster the Redskins' credibility among the Native population, it would lend more credence to the organization's stance on the name, and it would have the added effect of shoring up a national fanbase.

But, of course, having a thoughtful take - not to mention a political science degree from Amherst - hasn't been enough to shield Wright from being called simply "stupid" by the most strident corners of the name-change camp.  And, as long as that side disproportionately controls the narrative, keeping the nickname will indeed be an uphill battle - even if most of the folks who are "supposed" to be offended perhaps turn out not to be.

Whether the nickname change is inevitable or not, the franchise can at least do some good in the meantime by helping to tackle the more pressing, real-world problems many Native Americans face.