The most despicable name in American professional sports is nearly history. The Washington Redskins said Monday the team will soon be called something other than a terrible slur.
Progress! This change, debated since at least the 1980s, was long overdue, given that the nickname was so blatantly racist and obviously rooted in the country’s mistreatment of Native Americans.
“For the sake of our children, we’re of course very pleased,” said Raymond Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Indian Nation.
The Oneidas, based in Central New York, had been one of the tribes pushing Redskins team owner Dan Snyder to change the name. The tribe’s influential “Change the Mascot” campaign was inspired by students in Cooperstown who in 2013 lobbied to have their school drop the Redskins nickname.
That was a difficult fight in Cooperstown, with all the usual claims heard when people are confronted even by necessary change. What about history and tradition? It’s political correctness run amok!
But in the end, the kids prevailed, decency won and Cooperstown Central School teams became the Hawkeyes. Halbritter even donated $10,000 for new uniforms.
“Youth were leading the way, making better decisions than the NFL and the owner of the (Washington) team,” Halbritter told me Monday. “It gave us hope and inspired us to get involved.”
Snyder once vowed never to change the Redskins name, pointing to (perhaps dubious) polls suggesting that many Native Americans weren’t bothered by it. The White House, whose current occupant strenuously opposed the name change, cited the same polls on Monday; the president’s spokeswoman said the native community would likely be “very angry” at the change.
But, as Halbritter noted, tribal leaders across the country had for years decried the name as disparaging. Its demise was inevitable.
Still, Snyder doesn’t seem to be scrapping it now out of a genuine change of heart. The motive, instead, seems to be financial: Several corporations associated with the Redskins, including FedEx and Nike, made it clear that they had at long last come to the decision that they wanted no part of the slur. Snyder was caught between a rock and a diminished bank account.
Of course, the change is also happening amid a national conversation about racism following the killing of George Floyd. Confederate statues are coming down. Racist iconography, Aunt Jemima included, is being shelved. Suddenly, more Americans seem more willing to see the world through the eyes of Black and brown Americans.
So to reiterate: The football team based in our nation’s capital will get a name that isn’t a racist slur. Progress!
Yes, statues and mascots are merely symbols, and easier to change than intractable problems tied to the history of racism — such as police brutality or high urban dropout rates or desperate poverty on Indian reservations. The national reckoning unleashed by the eight minutes and 46 seconds of Floyd’s killing will fall short if those difficult problems remain untouched.
But symbols do matter.
Halbritter said dehumanizing nicknames affect the self-esteem of Native American teens and may contribute to their high suicide rates. Native American youth doesn’t feel listened to or cared about, Halbritter said, and the name change is a start toward shifting that.
“They’re going to feel,” he said, “as though a painful chapter of disrespect and denigration toward our people will be ending.”
Snyder has yet to announce the new name for Washington’s football club, but the team hinted the new name might also have Native American connections. When I asked Halbritter if he’d object, he said he’ll take a wait-and-see approach.
“Right now, the Washington team’s name is a racial slur,” he said. “That’s what we asked them to change, and that’s what they’re changing.”
The Redskins got their name in 1933, when the team was based in Boston. America has changed tremendously in the decades since, making huge strides toward equality and justice. How the Redskins name survived through it all is baffling. Why did the change take so long?
Of course, many Native American-inspired nicknames disappeared long ago. Siena College in Londonville scrapped “Siena Indians” in favor of “Siena Saints” way back in 1989.
That change, too, was met with anger and resistance. But the sun kept rising and time marched on. The anger dissipated and seems silly now. Does anybody now think Siena made the wrong call? Does anybody still care?
Sure, there’s room for debate as to whether names such as those of the Cleveland Indians or the Florida State Seminoles demean or honor, or whether they’re automatically more offensive than, say, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Reasonable people can disagree.
But there’s no debating or defending Redskins, although a diminishing number of diehards will try. Scrapping the name, finally, will be a step toward righting past wrongs. It will be … progress!