Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Simplicity and Stupidity of the Redskins Name Debate

The Redskins name is racist.

In 1994, St. John’s changed its nickname from the Redmen to the Red Storm. It struck me at the time because I never associated Redmen with an offensive term. The team wore Red – many believed the nickname Redmen was a literal interpretation of how the team looked when it played on the road.

The timing was interesting since just two years’ prior, the Redskins name controversy collided with the biggest sporting event on the planet as protests dominated Super Bowl coverage.

racist redskins helmet
Of course, the protest was treated in the same way that Christopher Nowinski’s landmark concussion findings were at a Super Bowl some two decades later – with near indignation that a group would dare to sully the great event known as the Super Bowl. The protests made an impact, if only as the first wide scale salvo in the war against racist nicknames.

Soon after, the Redmen were no more. Later, the NCAA would ban all racist nicknames from its members.

The Redskins name is racist.

This past Saturday morning, Lee Corso donned the mascot attire of the Florida State Seminoles to make his weekly pick. He dressed in the traditional Seminole war dress – Corso is an alum, by the way – as he correctly picked Florida State to win that night’s game against Clemson.

Because this is the Internet and we live in 2013, it made for a nice straw man argument. The Atlantic went as far as to call Corso’s actions the “equivalent of wearing black face.”

I cannot stress this enough – Lee Corso wearing that outfit was not the equivalent of wearing black face. In fact, just making that leap is dangerous. It is that type of rhetoric that destroys rational debates.

The Seminole tribe likes having its name associated with Florida State University. They like having their tribe treated with respect and honor by Florida State fans, alums and players. It is a matter of pride that the fighting spirit of their tribe has been deemed worthy to be used as the mascot for its state university.

The garb that Lee Corso donned on Saturday morning was what Native Americans wore 100s of years ago.

When people wear lederhosen during Oktoberfest, is that the equivalent of black face?

When people wear a sari, is that the equivalent of black face?

Lee Corso was not racist. Lee Corso was wearing a traditional headdress. It is not the Native American outfits – well, most of them – that has people embroiled in fierce debate. It is the connotation. It is the insults.

The Redskins name is racist.

Over the summer, the Washington Post released a poll that revealed 61 percent of Washingtonians liked the name. This, somehow, was treated as a reason why the name should stay.

I don’t fault the fans of the teams – they have never associated the name with an insult or a slur. They have associated Redskins with a football team. When people say Redskins in this town, no one thinks about racists, or Native Americans, or connotations – they think about the greatness of RG3, why Mike Shanahan should be fired and that terrible stadium that’s too far away.

That doesn’t make it right.

The Redskins name is racist.

The debate, like everything in this country, became highly politicized when President Obama made his feelings known and Bob Costas took it took another level with his highly controversial essay during halftime of the Redskins/Cowboys game.

In fact, there was nothing controversial about it. Costas said exactly what everyone knows about the team’s name.

The Redskins name is racist.

But the forum he chose – halftime of the most-watched broadcast show in primetime – annoyed people that like their sports separated from politics. Likewise, President Obama’s mention of the name during a government shutdown annoyed people that like their politicians to stay away from sports.

The most intriguing and thought-provoking piece I’ve read on the debate – far more than what you’re currently reading – came from a Native American journalist, Tristan Ahtone. In Acceptable Racial Slurs In Journalism (The Dreaded R-Word), he wrote:

“I'm reminded that in many ways the conversation surrounding the R-word could be likened to the debate about the N-word. One could argue the R-word isn't as hurtful as its black counterpart, however, it seems that even when non-Native people are asked by Native people not to use it, they have no problem with defending the use of word, and even yelling it to high heaven. This reaction is very different what happens with the N-word.  No one defends its use.  

What's more depressing is the group injured by the use of the word seems to have absolutely no voice or little credibility in the eyes of those who defend the use of the term.   It's almost as if that group were not real people with real view points, feelings or opinions.”

No voice.

Little credibility.

Not real people.

That’s how a Native American summed up how the name debate – not even the name – made him feel. Why is this even still a debate?

The Redskins name is racist. And it needs to go.

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