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ESPN's "Outside the Lines" Tackles "Redskins" Nickname (Again)

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Tom recaps tonight's OTL look at the "Redskins" debate and adds a touch of commentary

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN's Outside the Lines devoted an entire hour-long special to the Redskins nickname controversy on Tuesday night.

Having previously explored the controversy in numerous interviews, First Take segments, and smaller Outside the Lines pieces, the Worldwide Leader gave the topic an even bigger spotlight on Tuesday.

The tone of the special, while not surprising, was fairly clear from the start: An opening voiceover and montage connected the nickname debate to the black Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, as well as the contemporary gay-rights / gay-marriage movement and the election of President Barack Obama.

ESPN presented these images with a bed of soft piano music, followed by the narrator saying "So much of what we thought we knew could never happen . . . is happening."

"Yet, ten miles from the National Mall, where Native Americans completed the Longest Walk . . . sits FedEx Field, where the Redskins name remains."

"Never has the sound of protest been louder . . . never has the need for dialogue been more urgent."

Host Bob Ley, who did not say "Redskins" during the special, except when quoting others, first introduced the recent John Barr interview with Dan Snyder on a previous OTL segment.  The version presented last night strung together a series of truncated soundbytes from Snyder in which he used the word "truth."  There was a quick detour to refute "Lone Star" Dietz' Native heritage, then what appeared to be a dusting of pop psychology to explain Snyder's relationship with his late father and the connection of that relationship to the preservation of the nickname.  Barr recapped the salvos on both sides, from the ChangeTheMascot.org ad, to RedskinsFacts.com, to the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office ruling against the team.

That gave way to a live-to-tape interview via satellite between Ley and Amanda Blackhorse, the lead plaintiff in the recent trademark suit.  Her basic position was that Native Americans may call themselves whatever they want, but Snyder cannot.  She then accused Snyder of promoting "internalized oppression," and called his efforts on Native American reservations insincere and "laughable."

The next segment was a summary of the league's response to the nickname controversy.  Most of this portion consisted of clips of Roger Goodell commenting on the nickname, largely offering support for Snyder and the club.  It concluded back in the studio with Ley interviewing Chris Mortensen about the mechanics of how a name change might happen.  The upshot was that forcing a name change would be difficult and is not imminent.

Blackhorse returned to debate the nickname issue with Robert Doore, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe and nickname supporter.  Doore waded through some rehearsed comments, stumbling a couple of times.  Blackhorse criticized the 90% figure of Native American support cited by Doore (presumably referring to the Annenberg poll of 2004), saying that the polling wasn't "scientific." She then pivoted to say that polls are irrelevant anyway, again using the word "laughable."

She also made an argument that Mike Wise often makes, which is that the people who aren't offended don't matter.  She then used an unfortunate and horrible domestic violence metaphor, comparing those who are offended by "Redskins" to victims of physical battery, and name change proponents to perpetrators of such violence.  Doore fared even worse, as he had trouble responding directly to Ley's questions, instead trying as hard as possible to cling to his prepared talking points.

When asked about the league taking action, Blackhorse said that there will be a name change "within the next year."  She then accused Doore of being paid off by the Redskins, a charge that he denied.

Following a commercial break, ESPN revealed its new poll that said 71% of those surveyed think the Redskins should keep their name, while just 23% said the team should change it.  Interestingly, the poll showed no difference in attitude between whites and non-whites.  However, Ley said that a sharper contrast has arisen along political lines, as Democratic support for the name is at 58%.  Within the Redskins' locker room, only one player said the name should change (but over 40% answered with "no comment").  League-wide, nearly 60% of players said the name should stay.

The next segment looked at the finances of the Redskins, focusing on the team's enormous value and the impact a name change might have.  The overall theme of this portion was to suggest that a name change wouldn't hurt the Redskins much, if at all.  Peter Keating of ESPN the Magazine told Ley that the Redskins haven't been doing as well financially as they should have, and connected that to the nickname.  He used Ravens ticket prices over the last decade as a point of comparison, noting that Baltimore has nearly doubled its prices, while the Redskins have increased by "only" 40%.

Of course, the fact that Washington has won 67 games during that stretch---while Baltimore has won 104 games and a Super Bowl---might have something to do with it.

Ley then briefly reviewed the media's response and (non-)use of the nickname.  That segued into a debate between Bob Costas and Chris Cooley.  Ley began with a nice, quick swipe at NBC, noting they would not grant permission for ESPN to show any of Costas' anti-"Redskins" commentary from last season's Redskins / Cowboys Sunday night game.  "But, we press on . . ." Ley said.

Cooley had a similar problem as earlier speakers, in that he seemed to stick more to bullet points than to "flow" with the conversation.  He kept hammering the "we've visited reservations, we've talked to Natives" point.  Ley was clearly frustrated at times.  Costas had the better of this segment.

To be fair to Cooley, very few people are going to sound verbally nimble when they're (virtually) sitting next to Bob Costas.

Having said that, I do think that Ley was collegial and kind towards Costas and mildly adversarial towards Cooley.

Ley's closing commentary was, like the opening piece, unsurprising.  He brought up the very valid point that Snyder has made no friends with the media, and that hasn't helped him in the battle over the nickname.  Ley continued, "Is this [issue] a media creation?  Well, of course it is.  But so was Watergate."

He conceded that the polling is strongly in support of the name, but then wondered what the polling might have been on the Emancipation Proclamation or Jackie Robinson playing for the Dodgers.  Finally, he said that the ultimate determination will likely be a result of what the NFL owners think is in their best financial interest.  "Follow the money," he said.

So, to recap, the "Redskins" nickname issue was compared tonight to, among other things:

- The Civil Rights Movement

- The gay marriage movement

- Domestic violence

- Watergate

- Emancipation of American slaves

- Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball

People know where I stand with this issue.  I've written about it extensively.  I'll refrain from meandering on here or rehashing the debate, but I do want to make one quick point.  There is a "big picture" question that is at the heart of this topic.  And it's one that never gets specifically discussed.

It's even more fundamental than an over-arching concern about Native Americans and Native culture.  It also helps explain why the two sides of this debate seem so far apart and so incredulous at the opposite position.

The question is one I framed, but did not answer, in my previous commentary.  Namely: Is "offensiveness" valid grounds for striking something from popular culture?

A majority of the media takes it as a fait accompli that it is grounds for banishment, while the general public strongly disagrees.  Polling on hate-speech bans or political correctness are more than suggestive of that conclusion.

So, when a nickname opponent and a nickname supporter are arguing over whether the name is offensive, there's an unspoken question in play as well: The change advocate is thinking, "If it's offensive, it therefore must go."  Those of us on the other side may not find the name is offensive, but we also believe that it should stay even though some people are offended by it.

This may seem like a subtle or tangential point, but it is critical to understanding why both sides are often so strident.

When one side analogizes being offended to being a victim of physical abuse, and the other side believes something close to the old "sticks and stones" mantra, that's a big gap to bridge.

Unfortunately, especially for those of us who would just like to watch some football games, this debate won't be going anywhere for a while.