On Thursday night, the Washington Redskins played their first preseason game, beating the Tennessee Titans 22-21.
They did so without their star quarterback, Robert Griffin III, who suffered a serious knee injury last year. If a building media campaign has its way, they may soon have to play without their famous name too.
On Friday, on the website thinkprogress.org, Travis Waldron wrote:
Amid growing controversy and a federal lawsuit involving the name of Washington DC's football team, which many, including me, consider racist and unnecessarily offensive to American Indians, three more news outlets have decided to ditch the name altogether. Slate, The New Republic, and Mother Jones this week joined publications like the Washington City Paper, DCist, the Kansas City Star, and Buffalo News columnist Tim Graham in refusing to print the name of the football team that calls the nation's capital home.
Skating over the use of the term "American Indians" – "native Americans" is usually preferred these days – Waldron's piece does show that some sort of momentum is building in the campaign to drop the Redskins name.
However, Daniel Snyder, the Redskins owner, has so far shown no inclination whatsoever to accede to such demands, including that federal lawsuit, which is being pursued by a group of native Americans. Nor does it seem too likely that he is much of a reader of Mother Jones, Think Progress or Slate. Perhaps if The Washington Post, the New York Times, ESPN and Fox decided not to use the Redskins name the boycott might have a chance. Although, come to think of it, in May Snyder told another mainstream institution, USA Today:
We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.
In the same interview, Snyder said: "As a lifelong Redskins fan, I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it's all about and what it means." He had a point. Tradition does count against change.
The team that Snyder owns was formed in 1932 as the Boston Braves, before adopting the Redskins name in 1933 and moving to Washington in 1937. The world of American sports teams is a distinctly mutable one – moves between cities and name changes, dictated by the simple realities of the market, are common, as I learned from a friend who mourns daily Baltimore's loss of the Colts to Indianapolis, no matter what success the replacement Ravens may have. Nonetheless, tradition is a powerful motivation for fans and owners alike.
Anyone who is a reader of Mother Jones or Slate and who wants to know why so many people want so fiercely to keep the Redskins' name, regardless of its effect on others, could do worse than take a quick look across the Atlantic. The Redskins have been the Redskins for 80 years – Hull City, of the English Premier League, had until Friday been known as Hull City for 109 years. Their nickname was the Tigers, after their orange-and-black-striped shirts, but their name was Hull City. Now their new Egyptian owner, who thinks "City" is a dull and, crucially, non-marketable name, has formally renamed the club as the "Hull City Tigers". The fans are not happy.
The same goes for Cardiff City, another newly promoted and ambitious Premier League team, whose Malaysian owner last year changed their badge from a Bluebird to a Dragon and their colours from blue to red, all in the dread name of marketabilty. To use what is in the circumstances of this piece a wildly unwise phrase, in Hull and Cardiff, the natives are restless.
The point is, owners of sports teams can do what they like with those sports teams. Hull and Cardiff's owners wanted to make changes, so they made them. Snyder does not want to make a change, so he will not make one. Perhaps if there was a financial case to be made for dropping the Redskins' name, he might consider it. At the moment, there isn't one.
In sum, despite the federal lawsuit and the commendable efforts of those media organisations which will, doggedly, refuse to print the word "Redskins" this season, Washington's NFL team is not going to drop its name.
Of course, it should – "Redskins" is offensive to native Americans, and it is only a name, and it could easily be replaced with something appropriately marketable and dynamic and specific to the city in which the team plays. (I'd vote for the Washington Lobbyists, say, or if the defense is strong this season, the Washington Government Shutdown.) Just don't expect that it will be changed, any time soon.
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