Change the name? Sure. But is it ever really that easy?
“They ain’t no luck on this place.” Roskus said. “I seen it at first but when they changed his name I knowed it.” The Sound and the Fury
Try this sometime: ask a friend their opinion on a specific topic, something that’s important.
“Do you think Donald Sterling should have lost his team?”
“Yeah of course that racist old man is a disgrace to the NBA.”
Opinions are easy. I’m guessing the opinion they give you will be one they hadn’t really formulated until the need to have one arose. If they have thought about it I’m guessing they hadn’t done so more than once. Anyone can think about something and take a side rather quickly. Forrest Gump or Shawkshank Redemption? Brad Paisley or Blake Shelton? Breaking Bad or Mad Men? Andrew Luck or RG3? Simple enough.
“Do you think we should make morality a prerequisite and enduring criteria for sports franchise ownership?”
Ah. Convictions are a little more difficult aren’t they? Opinions and convictions are different, and they do not always line up perfectly. Thus, someone can say they’re glad to see Sterling go while maintaining that we should respect the privacy of the other 29 owners in the NBA. At the same time, someone with the firm conviction that racism should be dealt with swiftly and harshly could call for action other than a lifetime ban. Someone acting in either of these manners would be justified.
Unfortunately, this creates a disconnect in our culture where the mentality of the populace is diluted by the incongruous nature of our opinions and our convictions. Our opinions are broad but shallow, easily advocated but not demonstrated. Our convictions lose their weight, as they fail to influence our actions. As a result, we end up with Pyrrhic victories of public opinion. Too often we seek the ends and skip over the means, creating largely dissatisfying conclusions. Is racism any weaker with Sterling gone? Does due process kinda look a little skipped over? Sterling had to go but not all is well. Or, does anyone actually feel like we’re better off with Ray Rice temporarily on ice? No. No one feels good about how that transpired because we didn’t know how to feel about the situation until it was too late. Maybe Ray Rice should be suspended for a long time, but are we much farther ahead in the fight against domestic violence? Has the NFL and its commissioner come through in the clutch?
The problem is exacerbated by the need to make a decision. The imperative nature of opinion-holding creates firestorms of contention as we try to out-outrage each other. Once action is taken that we deem appropriate, the problem subsides as we breathe a collective sigh of relief.
So, if you didn’t know, an ongoing debate in the sports world has spilled over into a larger discussion of cultural appropriation, and it sits squarely at this crossroads of conviction and opinion. The question concerns the use of Native American names, logos, and mascots for sports teams, in particular the Washington Redskins of the NFL. It’s a topic that, because of its incendiary nature, “needs” the opinion of everyone.
So for your opinion: “Do you think the Washington Redskins should change their name?” Easy enough answer. You can go ahead and settle on either side and while people may disagree with you they’re not going to think you less a person for whatever side you choose. How about the convictions? If you say yes, then I’ll ask: “So then should all Native American team names be banned?” But if you say no to the first question, then I’ll ask: “So as long as the law protects it, business is allowed to carry on in a manner that hurts a powerless minority?”
This leaves us uneasy, does it not? As it stands now, if the name stays no one really wins besides Daniel Snyder (owner of the Redskins). Yes, the Redskins fans in favor of keeping the name would be happy, but that happiness is rooted mainly in a resistance to change, a love of nostalgia, and a bliss of ignorance. They can, without fault of morality, hold the opinion that the name should not change because they haven’t put enough weight into the matter. As for the the non-Redskins fans who say the name should stay, they don’t actually gain anything from it either because they haven’t invested anything but an opinion. No one is celebrating the sovereignty of sports franchises through the resistance of Daniel Snyder. And, as long as the name stays and those lightly-invested supporters have their way, the offense will continue and Native Americans will still be hurt by the brand.
But just changing the name doesn’t really get us to a better place either. Let’s say tomorrow Snyder has a change of heart and announces the team will change its name. Then what? The most prominent and offensive example of a Native American team name will be gone but many more will remain. We still won’t know how we feel about teams being named after Native Americans, we won’t know which names count as offensive and which are honorable, and we won’t really know if “redskin” is like “nigger.” The Native Americans who opposed the name will still face the problem from other sources and those who supported it will feel guilty for continuing to do so. And, of course, a pro franchise will have to rebrand and a ton of merchandise will be largely obsolete.
And, worst of all, no one will care.
Daniel Snyder could announce tomorrow that the team is changing it’s name and, in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t mean anything. Supporters of the name wouldn’t go for it, those who call for change would be left unsatisfied, and the issue would be far from resolved. The two most obvious routes for such a change of name would be to make a minor shift in the name, change the logo, and keep the colors, or completely change the name to something really stupid accompanied by campy red, white, and blue colors. The Redskins fans would roll their eyes either way.
If the name remains in the Redskins realm (Skins, Warriors, Hogs) with gold and burgundy colors, the fans will just keep wearing their old gear and still refer to the team as the Redskins, kind of like how many Marquette fans continue to refer to their team as the Warriors (Warriors apparel remains in demand. I’ve seen a Marquette ROTC shirt that says “Warriors Forever”). It would basically be a big semantic joke; a name change for the sake of a name change. If the team went with a name that was really Washingtony (Senators, Vetoes, Filibusters) or with the soccer-influenced name of Washington Football Club, wearing red-white-blue uniforms, the fans would be in open rebellion. You must admit that would be pretty stupid. And the fact that it would be stupid would just give fuel to non-Redskins fans who think they should keep the name. It would be a weak resolution to the problem.
Especially because those who oppose the name would also not really care, whether they became the Warriors or the Senators. Not only would the Native groups opposing the name still have hundreds of names on their check-off list, including many non-professional teams called “Redskins,” but non-Natives who are calling for the team name to change would suddenly see a cause disappear and move on with their lives. If you say you want the name to be changed I genuinely believe you, but will you care about this issue when the team is called the Washington Liberators? No, probably not. You’ll have found a cheap victory and you’ll move on to your next hashtagable cause. Maybe you’ll resurface when the next Native nickname is targeted. But, just as the nation breathed a sigh of relief and carried on business as usual after Donald Sterling was ousted, we would move on from the Redskins, just glad that the name was changed.
Here’s another way to look at this: in order for this name change to happen, we need to get over this “eff you” attitude. That is, for the most part, the way this is being carried out. Daniel Snyder has used Gilbertian all caps to make his mindset clear: he’s not changing the name. Because, in the words of Eric Cartman, “I don’t want to, and we can’t just change the name because it’s like super hard.” Snyder and his supporters can revel in the fact that we can’t make them change the name. So they’ll keep it. Cuz reasons.
But those of us who are calling for the name to be changed aren’t really much better. It’s kind of trendy to be an ethnic activist, so without much thought we can jump into this and say, “Yeah, that name’s awful. Snyder sucks. Change it!” For the majority of people, it’s a cause to get behind via the internet and hold an opinion about. It’s not something most people would sacrifice anything for; it’s safe to oppose the name. So it’s a big eff you from us to Snyder and the Redskins fans, because we’re shaming their name and their franchise history in the hopes of achieving a goal that, for now, we really don’t care that much about. The name change should reflect a cultural change, not just a trending topic.
For this to happen and actually matter, this needs to move from opinion to conviction. How? Daniel Snyder needs to gradually appease us until we demand total change (because we truly want it) or until we are satisfied and our lack of conviction is revealed. If the name is to be changed, it has to be because we the people are so appalled by the use of the word Redskin that to keep it would be lunacy. If the name is to stay, it has to be because we find out we really don’t care that much. But for now, steps need to be taken to nudge this process of change along, and this plan is how I think that could happen. Here’s how Daniel Snyder needs to play this game of chicken with us:
- Change the logo: This is the obvious first step. The Cleveland Indians have done this by moving from Chief Wahoo, the comically offensive logo, to a simple red “C,” which has probably made them as viable an option as the Reds for apparel for the Bloods. The Redskins logo is not as bad as Chief Wahoo, but it’s far worse than the Chiefs, Braves, and Blackhawks. Snyder is really nuts if he feels he has to hold on to this logo, especially because, offensiveness aside, it’s really lame. Change to the spear or just put an “R” in the feathered shield instead of the somber Native man.
- Change the uniforms: A less offensive logo will only buy Snyder a little time (although, speaking of buying, he’d sell a ton of merchandise). The next step is to find out what it is that people really want to hold on to. So change the unis a little. They’ve been fairly consistent for the last 50 years. Use slightly different colors and do something crazy with the design like the Seahawks (which I now love) or the Buccaneers (which I now hate slightly less). By doing this, Snyder can take the temperature of the fanbase while also having a bargaining chip to give back to them in exchange for keeping the name. The logo would stay changed, but he could switch the unis whenever. Oh, and he’d continue to sell a ton of merchandise.
- Propose name change to Maroons: Since Reds is already taken, propose changing the name to Maroons. It matches the team’s color scheme and it harkens back to the Pottsville Maroons of the ancient NFL days, an intriguing story that has a somewhat unresolved ending. The Maroons also were based in Pennsylvania, just a 3½ hour drive from DC. You have to admit it would be tough to come up with a name that is really that much better than Washington Maroons. But can you really see fans going for it, despite its strengths? The internet would destroy that name. So, with the public sentiment begin anti-Maroon, back away from the name and move to the next step.
- Drop the nickname: This is where we really find out how everyone feels. With the public having declined the best option (Maroons) for a change, Snyder will drop the nickname altogether, and his team will be known simply as “Washington.” If through this process public opinion has not turned into a conviction, then within a short matter of time Snyder will be able to add Redskins back on. With Washington nameless and logoless, you can see where support might rally to bring back the Redskins name, resurrecting a history wrongfully taken from a proud franchise. However, with the unsatisfactory result of a nameless franchise, the public might also reach the conviction that the team needed a name again, and that name had to be something other than Redskins. After all these gradual steps, society might reach a place where naming a team Redskins is absolutely out of the question. Snyder, not wanting to have no name, would have the freedom to rebrand anyway he wanted, and he’d still have Maroons as an option if people came around after the no-name scare. Fans would be happy to see a new name in Washington, and they would understand why the name had to change and care about the issue behind it. Oh, and Snyder would, again, make a ton of money.
- Use a PR campaign to usher in the new name: This final step would solidify the new era in the Washington franchise, heal the wounds this fight has inflicted, and give an important voice to those who want to continue to advocate for the end of Native names. Snyder needs to put on events and showcases as a part of the rebranding process, and those events should involve leaders in the Native American community. Imagine a tribal elder shaking hands with Snyder while wearing an RG3 Maroons jersey. How about a commercial in which a family of Natives settles into their seats in the living room to turn on the Washington game? By doing this, Snyder can make amends with Natives and give them a chance to say, “We accept this team. It’s okay for you to cheer for them.” It would also be a clear manifestation of what would be by this time the popular sentiment of the day: these names need to go. Snyder would go from being the lead villain in this debate to being a pioneering hero. And he’d make more money. Again.
Of course, at any step along the way, we may find that the public isn’t actually that committed to the fight. Maybe eventually we’d be satisfied, happy to just see the logo disappear. While this would be a disappointment to Natives who oppose the name, it would send them a clear signal that they need a new strategy since attacking the Redskins name was failing. But, if through this process the lightly given opinions of our culture turn into convictions, then change that is real, meaningful, and enduring will come. Changing the name would be more than an internet-driven eff you; it would be a symptom of cultural change, rather than a hasty expression of the desire to enact change.
Do I want the Redskins name to change? Yeah, I do. But I want the name to change for the right reasons, and I want the change to actually mean something. We can’t keep playing activism Whack-A-Mole, striking out at problems as they arise, moving from one cause to the next, pouring our internet selves into something while living our lives in a different fashion. We have to learn and improve.
Or we just have to get over it and realize plenty of Natives support the name and cultural appropriation is something that has to happen on the personal level and people will always have something to be offended by and there are other more important things to worry about.
Like I said, opinions are easy. Convictions take some time. We have to be patient.
Wait, one more thing: Why pick the name Redskins in the first place? Like that is a really, really dumb name for a football team.
Okay, now I’m done.
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Soli Deo Gloria