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Redskins fans: What’s in a name?

When I was little I had a Washington Redskins watch cap that I kept until it frayed so badly that it almost became unrecognizable.  Heaven help the kid who tried to take it away from me.  They were, after all, our team.  Names like Vince Lombardi, George Allen, Joe Theisman, Billy Kilmer, and Sonny Jurgensen are the stuff of legends.  Of course, that was then.  Today, I follow the ups and downs of RGIII with the same rapt attention I gave those now retired and departed greats.  But, over the past few years, a worry has crept into my thinking.  Perhaps, its time Washington’s football team changed its name.
This has been hashed out in the press, letters to the editor, and over water coolers for years.  But, come on, it’s the 21st century and names like Redskins just aren’t appropriate anymore.  That is, if they ever were.  And no, lest I provoke the immediate reflex of being told that this is all about political correctness, it isn’t.  Rather, I think of what my grandmother said when telling me why I shouldn’t use an unfortunate word to describe someone of another race, “It’s just not nice.”  To a Southerner, that’s all I needed to hear.

Besides, there is nothing all that sacrosanct about the name of a football team.  Sure there is tradition, but teams have changed their names before.  Remember the Washington Bullets, the Baltimore Colts and the Washington Senators?  Each one of them changed their names. Also, the Redskins weren’t always the Redskins.  Before they moved to Washington for the 1937 season, in Boston where the team began, they were the Braves.  That was a much better name, but their owner, George Preston Marshall, an impressive figure, but well known for his hostility to minorities of all kinds, changed the name to Redskins.  And it stuck.
Now, what’s the big deal about calling the team the Redskins anyway?  It’s a football team for crying out loud.  Fair enough, but Redskin isn’t just another name for Native Americans.  It was never, borrowing from Grandma again, a nice name.  It was always hostile and pejorative.  For Native Americans it’s a lot like the N word.  That’s an epithet for African Americans so egregious that spelling it out is never done in a decent newspaper.  Considered in that context it gives this discussion an entirely different light.  American Indians have wanted to change the name of the team for decades.  Maybe it’s time we listened to them.

President Obama recently suggested that the team’s owner consider changing the name of the franchise. It was restrained and thoughtful suggestion. However, in this hyper-partisan environment, I am not sure he did the cause of changing the team’s name any good or not.  Curiously though, the last time an administration weighed in on an issue concerning the Capitol’s football team was when Robert Kennedy, at John Kennedy’s request, put pressure on team owner Marshall to integrate the team.  The Federal government owned the football stadium and could have told the Redskins to play elsewhere.  The Redskins, under the very team owner who gave them the Redskins moniker was just about the last owner in professional football to integrate his team.

Very few events unify our region quite like the Redskins.  From the Maryland suburbs, to West Virginia, Richmond and the Northern Neck, when it’s game time, the roads and the stores are all but empty.  Almost every household is glued to the TV.  And those who aren’t watching the game often want to know the score as soon as it’s available.  But maybe it’s time that we exercised a little thoughtfulness and, instead of “Redskins,” found a nice name for our team.

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