Saving Our Skins

I didn’t think much of it one way or the other when Harrison Weinhold brought up the Washington Redskins’ nickname during the podcast we recorded over a week ago.  The conversation meandered from weighty issue to weighty issue, and the brief detour into sports felt unremarkable.  After all, the Redskins’ nickname has been mildly controversial in some circles for a couple of decades now, with the anti-“Redskins” sentiment never gaining much traction.

ChiefZWe’d get a disposable opinion piece once in a while, and the odd publication here or there would announce with a modest dash of self-congratulation that it would henceforth refuse to use the team nickname in its NFL coverage.  Generally, this was the sports equivalent of the intermittent, scary “summer of the shark attack” story: A few people would get riled up, we would worry about it and discuss it for a few weeks, but all was forgotten quickly enough, and the story would be revived a few years later and proceed through the same cycle.

That doesn’t seem to be the case now.  This latest round of commentary is qualitatively (and certainly quantitatively) different.

Perhaps I’ve been more aware of these stories because of that podcast, but I don’t think that alone accounts for why the “Redskins must change name” theme has felt so ubiquitous in recent weeks.

The initial catalyst, of course, was D. C. Mayor Vincent Gray opining that the Redskins will need to change their name if the team intends to end their self-imposed exile in Maryland and return to the nation’s capital.  A symposium on “Racial Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports” followed, where Washington Post reporter Mike Wise called for using social pressure to embarrass those who embrace the name in order to force the Redskins to change course.

Those events served as a starter’s pistol for sports philosophers across the country to see who could muster the most outrage over the decades-old nickname.

Notwithstanding the underlying issue of whether “Redskins” should still be in use, the story provides a terrific case study for several themes crucial to an understanding of the current state of our culture.  Those broad themes are what interest me most about this topic.

Worlds Apart

First, there’s the disconnect between the views held by media and the views held by the public.  After the deluge of anti-“Redskins” pieces over the last month, even the Washington Post‘s Dan Steinberg admitted that:

Holy cow, now every single media member in the world has written about the Redskins name this week. Latest additions: Sally JenkinsAndrew SharpChris ChaseLZ GrandersonPaul LukasDrew MagaryKids Post’s Fred BowenShaun PowellBarry PetcheskyMike FreemanWill BrinsonNathan FennoJoseph HayesChris Mottram. Many of these people, you’ll note, don’t work for The Post. They’re basically 100 percent  in favor of a name change. And I don’t sense that they’re changing the minds of many supporters.

Emphasis mine.  The fact is that the media—the national sports media in particular—is populated by folks who generally march in ideological lockstep when it comes to issues of race or “offensive” speech.  As an aside, I’ve always found it sadly ironic that high-profile journalists in a country fortunate enough to enjoy the blessings of the First Amendment are almost always more squeamish about “offensive” language than are people who didn’t go to elite journalism schools.[1]

Almost as striking as the uniformity of opinion is the condescending rhetoric that many of these folks use to illustrate just how superior they are.  That’s a hallmark of a modern journalism where the opinionated have become so confident in their own views that civility is optional at best.  Here’s a sampling.  First up, WaPo’s Sally Jenkins:

It would be nice if the NFL franchise in the nation’s capital were an example for all the land. But apparently Snyder takes his example from 10th graders. A couple of days ago, the club launched a campaign to defuse the pressure Snyder is under to change the team name by declaring that ’70 different high schools in 25 states are known as the Redskins,’ and therefore it’s surely an honorable word. What’s more, “ found that there are almost as many schools using the name Redskins as Cowboys.” Oooh! And after school, for fun we’ll shoot BB guns at road signs! . . . I’m pretty sure that whoever wrote the post wouldn’t score any higher on a history test than your nephew who chews on his arm.

I would relish the opportunity to go head-to-head with Sally Jenkins on an American history test.  Next, here’s’s Chris Mottram on Redskin Jordan Black’s pro-nickname tweet:

Jordan Black is a white male telling a minority race that they’re overly sensitive about racism.  And if your head hasn’t exploded yet, this stupid [expletive] Florio wrote about RGIII and the name change is sure to do the trick.

White males, amirite?!?  I actually think Black was directing his comments more to white liberals than to Native Americans, but, anyway, SBNation’s Andrew Sharp is up next:

The real lesson from Monday and Tuesday’s explanations is that no matter what the Redskins say to defend themselves, it just leaves them looking a little more insensitive and desperate. Which I guess makes sense. It all comes with the territory when you’re DEFENDING A NAME THAT’S OBVIOUSLY RACIST.

That’s an important theme throughout—the idea that the anti-“Redskins” side has won by default, because any defense of the name is irrelevant. “Racism” is per se indefensible.  More on that later.

If one reads the articles linked above, they range from childish in tone (especially Jenkins’, considering that hers appeared in an “establishment” newspaper, and not some blog) to reasonable (e.g. Florio).  However, most of them seem to have been written using the same set of bullet points.

1. Analogize the name to ethnic slurs about which there is more consensus, especially black slurs.  Highlight the fact that the name would have already been changed if it were a different ethnic group in play.

2. Point out at least twice that George Preston Marshall was a racist.

3. Offer some terrible alternative names.

4. Leave out the fact that the reason the team changed its name from Braves in the first place was due to a dispute with the Boston Braves and the use of their playing facility.

5. Mention that, sometimes, political correctness is just plain correct, you guys!

The degree to which some of these articles track one another is a little frightening.  It makes the effort seem much less organic and almost coordinated.  A lot of the beats are very similar.

At least based on anecdotal evidence, however, Redskins fans seem to be in favor of keeping the decades-old nickname.  To be sure, there are fans who would like to see it change, and others still who wouldn’t care if the team were called the Washington Wimps if the switch guaranteed that a healthy Robert Griffin, III were ready for opening day.

The problem is that only one of these positions is represented in the mainstream media.

And I would take it a step further: Given the hysterical rhetoric used by many commentators who oppose the name, a national media figure would be hard-pressed to insist upon writing a pro-“Redskins” article and still remain employed, or at least avoid ostracism by some of his more outspoken colleagues.

BobbyBigWheelThe general public’s collective feeling on the nickname issue likely falls somewhere between “not that big of a deal” and “a debatable point.”  But, when the media treats that same issue as a fait accompli over which there can be no meaningful debate (because all right-thinking people are on the “correct” side), we have a huge problem.

The media’s purpose is, roughly, to provide information and analysis that explains and informs.  There is absolutely a place for commentary that takes a position on contentious stories, and I would never say otherwise.  The folks who oppose the nickname certainly make some relevant points we should all consider.  It doesn’t trouble me that commentators at the Washington Post or the New York Times or CBS or ESPN or left-leaning blogs like Gawker / Deadspin or Daily Kos take a position on this issue.

What troubles me is that they all take the same position on this issue.

The only pro-“Redskins” opinion may be found in the comments section of most of those outlets, or maybe on a largely inconsequential website such as this one.  You won’t see much “professional” pro-status-quo opinion from any news source that doesn’t incorporate an eagle or a rattlesnake into its masthead.

“Aha,” critics would say.  “That merely proves that the enlightened media members are right, Garrett!  The reason there’s no thoughtful defense of the name is because that’s impossible, because any thinking person is obviously horrified by this racism.  Your argument that the mainstream outlets and prominent blogs are all saying the same thing is self-defeating!  Would you object if they all came out in favor of puppies and ice cream?”

I would, if a healthy percentage of the public—perhaps a solid majority—were against puppies and ice cream.

That is where we get into trouble.  We should be a little worried any time the media lines up in unison on one side of an issue that the public sees as contentious, whether it’s something very important, like the question of going to war, or something relatively trivial, like a squabble over a nickname.  The hive-mindedness reflected in commentary raises valid questions about the selective presentation of facts on the hard news side.  Whether it’s drone warfare, gay marriage, or racial issues, just getting the same opinion regurgitated over and over by different people does the public little good.

If a mere ten or twenty prominent commentators all decide to voice the same opinion on the same issue, how easy is it for subsequent stories on the news side to refer to a “growing consensus” or “increasing pressure?”  It becomes a self-sustaining story fueled by the news organization itself, rather than one that is given an appropriate amount of airtime / print space purely on its own merits.  We’ve certainly seen this phenomenon in other contexts.

When outlets create or enhance the “weight” of their own news, that’s not ideal  But the lack of dissent, and the chilling effect on any who might proffer a contrary opinion, worries me a lot more.

The “Standing” Problem

One feature of nearly every recent column I’ve read on this subject is the highlighting of a few Native American officials or lobbying groups who have voiced opposition to the nickname.  They also usually have a line such as the one penned by yet another Washington Post columnist[2], Robert McCartney.  In one of his pieces on the subject, McCartney quoted Redskins GM Bruce Allen’s defense of the nickname, then followed Allen’s quote by saying, “Allen doesn’t understand (or won’t acknowledge) that it’s not up to him, a white man, to decide what offends Native Americans.”  McCartney, a white man, then concludes that the name “Redskins” is a slur that is offensive to Native Americans.

Let’s put aside the somewhat-suspect idea that only members of a given group have the right to analyze the offensiveness of certain speech[3].  Let’s assume that to be true arguendo.

Then what do we make of the fact that the only comprehensive survey conducted among the Native American population as to the offensiveness of “Redskins” showed very little opposition?  The poll, from 2004, found that 91% of Native Americans found the name to be acceptable, while only the remaining 9% found it to be offensive.

Let’s further assume that the numbers haven’t shifted so dramatically in the eight-plus years as to reverse the math.  In other words, let’s say that a strong majority of Native Americans don’t mind the name.  Perhaps it’s only 80% or 70% or 60% now, but who knows?  If that’s the case, though, shouldn’t these columnists (themselves predominantly white) drop the issue, by their own logic?

Certainly, no one is as adept at being offended on behalf of others as are white progressives.

Is this person considered physically attractive?  I was too busy being enlightened to notice.

Is this person considered physically attractive? I was too busy being enlightened to notice.

We saw this a couple of months ago during the Katherine Webb kerfuffle.  In case you forgot, Brent Musburger had the audacity to point out during the broadcast of the otherwise-dull BCS title game that Alabama quarterback A. J. McCarron’s girlfriend Katherine Webb is quite lovely.  He referred to her as—I hope you’re sitting down—“beautiful,” and joked that “you quarterbacks [referring to broadcast partner Kirk Herbstreit] get all the beautiful women,” adding that young boys in Alabama should be picking up footballs and throwing them around the backyard.

This good-natured exchange was, again, something that fell into either the “I agree!” or “no big deal” categories for most people watching the game.  Yet, the vocal “this is offensive” camp initially controlled the narrative.  As with the Redskins’ nickname, they were there to tell the rest of us that this was insensitive, “heteronormative” behavior.  Timothy Burke of Deadspin (and author of the “heteronormative” line) offered some concerns over perceived objectification of Webb and said, in part, “For [Musburger] to assert that . . . every boy should try to be a football hero to get such a gorgeous woman, is where it is really not a good thing for me.”

Michigan State professor Sue Carter offered some very critical comments of her own to the New York Times.  She suggested that Musburger even discussing the looks of Miss Alabama USA winner Webb, or anyone in the crowd for that matter, was “retrograde” and a “major personal violation.”  Carter added that such comments were no longer an acceptable cultural norm, and it was up to people in the industry to “keep up” with this new worldview.

ESPN naturally apologized for Musburger’s comments, bowing, as usual, to pressure from the most-easily offended.  The controversy may have grown even further—perhaps escalating to the point of ESPN disciplining Musburger—but was stopped in its tracks by two things.  First, there was a dissenting, credible voice in Outkick the Coverage’s Clay Travis.  He authored an outstanding take-down of those who clutched their collective pearls over the Musburger comments.

Secondly, the story also included one very inconvenient detail in its fact pattern.

Katherine Webb was flattered, not insulted.

At that point, the mild outrage became even sillier.  If the person who is the subject of the “offensive” speech is not, you know, offended . . . then why should someone else be offended on his behalf?[4]

To bring this discussion back to the issue at hand, even if Native Americans were unanimous in their support of the nickname “Redskins” (which I know isn’t the case), would these critics still band together to oppose the name?

This is an honest question.  One aspect of this story that vexes me is whether the anti-“Redskins” camp thinks that Native American opinion is determinative in this matter.  My feeling is that, even if a similar poll in 2013 showed a majority of Native Americans had an affinity for “Redskins,” whatever percentage did not would be deemed to be “enough” by those who are outraged by the name.

The New Breadth of “Racism”

One major cultural battle (and one specific disconnect between the mainstream media / academia on the one hand, and the rest of us on the other) is the question of what constitutes racism.

This may seem like a simple—even silly—question to answer.  But I assure you that’s not the case.

For me personally, it is pretty simple.  I don’t choose my friends or colleagues based on race.  I don’t treat members of one race with more or less respect than I do people of another race.  I don’t believe in the superiority of one race (or some races) over others.

But does that mean I won’t laugh when Adam Carolla makes a joke about a particular group, my own included?  Of course not.  Does it mean I’ll lose sleep contemplating the “appropriate” in-theater behavior when a white person watches Django Unchained?  Nope.  Does it mean I’ll feel “uncomfortable” or “conflicted” rooting for my beloved Redskins?  Not at all.[5]

That’s the one of the problems with defining how far the boundaries of racism go: Taking context and intent into account.

Counterintuitively, the broader parameters of racism and offensiveness found in journalistic circles actually lack nuance.  Racism for them is a zero-tolerance issue.  Anything related to the topic of race that might offend someone somewhere is just as off-limits as something even I would consider to be actual, vile racism.

The paramount virtue in that area has become sensitivity.  We have Mike Wise saying that “white guilt” is really just another term for “human compassion.”  I find that odd, because human compassion is a concept near and dear to my heart, and one that informs every decision I make.  White guilt, on the other hand, has always been meaningless cultural baggage to me.

This philosophy of being as sensitive as possible may sound seductive, but there are a few problems.  Chief among them: sensitivity is no substitute for intelligence.  A lack of nuance can lead to absurdities, like this being equated with this, or a city official in (you guessed it!) Washington, D. C. famously being forced to resign because people didn’t know what “niggardly” meant.

What’s more notable is not the difference in notions of what constitutes racism, but why the more expansive conception has proliferated so much recently.  Some would likely chalk it up to “progress,” but the truth is that being able to paint someone as a bigot is an effective (and intellectually lazy) argument-ender in most cases.  Being able to play that card is a powerful feeling, and I understand on an intellectual level why people want to portray any view that isn’t theirs as evil, rather than merely reflective of a slightly different value hierarchy.

If someone wants to beef up border security, it’s much easier to dismiss that person as a racist than it is to explain why, in this age of terrorism risks and criminal activity in Mexico that regularly crosses into the U. S., more security isn’t a smart policy.

RedskinsLogoIn the case of the Redskins, the critics think it’s an open-and-shut case:  At least some Native Americans are offended.  The team name literally references skin color, which will always make it nothing more than a slur in their eyes (and the eyes of all intelligent people, of course).  Moreover, the founder of the franchise and the person who came up with the name, George Preston Marshall, was a known, virulent racist toward blacks.  Therefore, the nickname could not possibly have been chosen out of admiration.[6]

And, even if opponents would concede that the name was selected to honor Native Americans, that still isn’t satisfactory.  In one of the McCartney pieces, he quoted Kevin Gover, the director of the American Indian Museum.  Here’s the relevant excerpt:

That might be so, but it’s certainly become a problem today, according to Kevin Gover, director of the American Indian museum. “It’s stereotyping to use Indians that way. They’ll say, ‘Indians are brave, strong and steadfast.’ We want to say Indians are also smart and pious and generous. If you honor us only for those [other] qualities, then you’re basically saying that’s all we’ve got,” he said.

Emphasis mine.  In other words, part of Gover’s argument is: If you’re spending time saying Native Americans are brave and strong, you’re not spending time saying they’re smart and generous and pious and beautiful and good knitters and excellent karaoke singers.[7]

Put simply, it’s not just offensive to ascribe negative characteristics to Native Americans.  It’s also offensive to say that Native Americans have positive qualities, because that means you aren’t saying they have other, non-traditional positive qualities.[8]

From the media’s perspective, there is only one correct position.  Always.  End of story.  Even applying scrutiny to such a position, as I’m foolishly doing here, is suspect.  Nuance has no place in a context that is so cut-and-dry, after all.

The aforementioned Mike Wise, at that Racial Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports Symposium, reportedly remarked, “If one person is offended, we should all be offended.”

Well, that’s a bright-line rule if I’ve ever heard one.  I’ll just say that it never ceases to amaze me how people supposedly educated in principles of free speech are among the least-committed to the concept.

What Happens Now?

Redskins owner Dan Snyder is steadfast in his refusal to change the team’s nickname, and I think he has most of the fanbase behind him.  And maybe he’ll hold out long enough such that football itself disappears before the “Redskins” moniker has a chance to do so.

More likely, though, the media will continue along the arc of ridiculing supporters of the name.  Truth be told, they’ll likely prevail.  The progressives have been winning for a while now, and I don’t see that trend reversing itself anytime soon.  Even if the public is on the side of the team, the NFL itself may eventually step in and take action against the Redskins if a braying media becomes too much of a distraction.

It’s the nature of our current climate.  ESPN felt the need to issue that Webb-related apology in a situation where very, very few people outside of select college faculty lounges or a few trendy Brooklyn coffee shops cared.  Certainly, many more people care about the Redskins’ logo and nickname.

I think the logo disappears eventually, as do all or most Native-American-related nicknames in sports generally (which is obviously already happening, thanks in no small measure to penalties imposed by the NCAA).  I also think any mascots or logos that include a race-specific human will also begin to go extinct in time, on the grounds that they’re racist or at least “non-inclusive.”  That will be the next logical frontier.

A common hypothetical foe propped up by a lot of the anti-“Redskins” authors above is the person who cries “this is just political correctness run wild!”  This is sometimes just a convenient strawman argument used to underscore how much more intelligent and moral the author is than his opponents, but I don’t doubt that the anti-PC crowd does still exist in large numbers.

What people who cry “political correctness!” need to realize, though, is that that battle is over.

We all lost.

In the 1990s, calling someone “too PC” or “oversensitive” was clearly an insult.  Being “politically correct” was a source of derision.  Using well-crafted euphemisms in place of more efficient language and requesting that alternative terms be used for nearly every special interest group was laughed off by those who thought that such measures were silly and unnecessary.

But, now, the folks who were laughing a generation ago are the ones who are mocked.  Simply put, there is no such thing as “political correctness” anymore.  The script is officially flipped, and it has been for some time.  As I said earlier, sensitivity is now the orthodoxy, and a deviation from that core belief will be chalked up as one of a host of argument-ending behaviors (racism, sexism, bullying, etc).

The worst thing any public figure can do in the twenty-first century is offend.  Context and intent don’t matter—even if the person is making a valid point, hurting someone’s feelings, much less a group’s feelings, is inexcusable.[9]

Although I’m in favor of keeping “Redskins,” in the final analysis, the fact that the name may one day change isn’t what troubles me.  What troubles me is how comfortable we’ve become with the idea of one-sided discourse and chilling free speech.

HateSpeechIsNotFreeSpeechPosterPeople who have free speech concerns about our society in general shouldn’t be dismissed (even though they are).  As those who want to see the United States move toward a European model in many respects continue to guide the narrative, reeling in the idea of “hate” speech is a part of that.  And, yes, even something like sports mascots and nicknames are a small part of the receding commitment to free speech.

Back in September, we were still under the impression that a series of attacks on U. S. embassies in the Middle East were the result of Muslim outrage over a poorly-produced and inflammatory YouTube video.  That’s when Eric Posner authored an article making the case that the United States overvalues free speech.  I give Posner credit for being intellectually honest, even if I strongly disagree with his central premise.

Quietly, I think the idea of free speech being less important than not giving offense has become something of a consensus among the media and academia.[10]  Most troubling of all is that a belief in curtailing “hate speech” has gained support in tandem with an ever-expansive definition of “hate” (which now includes buying sandwiches at the wrong fast-food restaurant).  That’s a dangerous combination from the perspective of those of us who are old-school liberals when it comes to freedom of speech.

In short, our willingness to silence “unacceptable” viewpoints has increased at the same time our definition of what is an unacceptable viewpoint has increased exponentially.

We need to push back against this.  Hard.

To be clear: The world won’t end if the Redskins change their name.  This is just a tiny fragment of a much larger, much more important cultural mosaic that seems to be crumbling at the edges.

If we were to hold up as our prevailing cultural ideal that no one should be offended by anything, suffice it to say that our society would look and function much, much differently.  I say “worse,” perhaps Mike Wise would say “better.”

Maybe we’ll get there one day.

Until then, Hail to the Redskins.


[1] For all the scholars out there who think it’s profound to point out that the First Amendment applies only to government restraints on speech—no sh*t.  But there’s a deeper point, which is that the United States has embraced notions of free speech that don’t exist elsewhere.  This includes the idea that even offensive speech is worthy of protection (with some very, very narrow exceptions).  I honestly believe that many members of the media don’t believe in that ideal, and would prefer to live under a speech regime closer to that of Europe.
[2] Surprising that a print outlet can still afford to have so many people writing opinion pieces in 2013, but I digress.
[3] Ironic, of course, that, in the same breath that the author denies Allen (“a white man”) the right to evaluate offensiveness, he makes the case that he (also a white man) has determined that the nickname is incredibly offensive.
[4] Of course, the counter to that rhetorical question is to point out that, even if Webb (or the Native American community in the case of the Redskins) isn’t offended, she should be, and so should everyone else, and it’s up to the most enlightened and forward-thinking among us to step in and raise awareness of that fact.
[5] One of the things I treasure about growing up in the era in which I did, and with the people with whom I did, is that we hit the sweet spot of “racism isn’t as much of a problem” and “people aren’t race-obsessed.”
[6] One pillar of the argument that the name wasn’t intended to pay tribute to Native Americans has never really made sense to me is the premise that a team would want to name itself after something it despised or ridiculed.  It seems to me that, yes, the name may not be “sensitive,” but it seems crazy to think that it was mockery.  I don’t think there’s any evidence of any contemporary team on any level selecting a nickname intended to be derogatory or self-deprecating.  Say what you will about the people from the 1920s and 1930s, but they sure as hell didn’t do a lot of things ironically.  And, if we’re going to pick nicknames based on groups that we want to oppress and ridicule, can we please rename the team the Washington Hipsters?  Thanks in advance.
[7] Incidentally, I really can’t believe a professional writer for a major American newspaper actually used that quote.
[8] McCartney goes on to suggest helpfully that the Redskins might rename themselves the “Federals.”  Because, you know, it’s a great idea for a five-time world champion franchise to assume the moniker of a USFL outfit that was bad even by the standards of that league.  For what it’s worth, if the Redskins did choose to change their name, I would favor “Washington Warheads.”
[9] With the important proviso that hurting the feelings of someone who has already been deemed to be a member of one of those negative categories (racist, etc) is acceptable.  Once you get lumped under that heading, you’re fair game, of course.
[10] The alternative, of course, is to let the market decide.  If people truly believe that the Redskins are purveyors of racism, they can stop supporting the team.  Stop buying tickets.  Stop buying merchandise.  Stop watching them on television.  But that’s never a good enough solution for critics, because (1) the market doesn’t work fast enough (especially in a league that has rev share), and (2) a majority may never think as they do.  Therefore, we should merely accept that we are unenlightened goons and defer to them on all matters of cultural norms.  After all, they took the trouble to get a journalism degree.  And, increasingly, they like to belittle the non-like-minded.  If that isn’t evidence that we should obey, I don’t know what is.
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12 Responses to Saving Our Skins

  1. Pingback: Best of 2013 | The Axis of Ego

  2. Tom Garrett says:

    Reblogged this on The Axis of Ego and commented:

    With 10 of the 435 members of Congress calling for the Redskins to change their name, despite recent polling that suggests only a tiny fraction of the public objects, I thought it might be a good time to re-run this post from a few months back. Again, I think what is so telling about this issue is how unrepresentative the media is of the way the public feels. As I discuss below, every major public opinion poll ever taken on this topic (including one exclusive to Native Americans) suggests that the vast majority have no issue with the nickname. However, the media is essentially 100% against it. Hell, even Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless of the ESPN (contrived) debate show “First Take” found common ground, here, which is a bit alarming. In the piece below, I not only discuss the substance of the debate, but also explore just what is at work with the mainstream media not only being in lockstep, but being in lockstep in a way that is totally at odds with the way the public feels. Enjoy.

  3. elgringoloco says:

    We talked about this earlier, but while I do think “Redskins” probably goes too far and might be better off changing (I personally would love it becoming the “Washington Warriors” or the “Washington Braves”), the fact that you have people just saying “if you have any disagreements, you’re wrong and probably RAYCESS!!!!111” doesn’t help anybody.

    And this dovetails into another pet peeve of mine–when someone went out and named their teams “the Indians” or “the Braves” or “the Chiefs,” they were certainly not attempting to insult Native Americans. Same way, I don’t think anybody would have nicknamed their teams “the Fighting Irish” if they were truly trying to insult the Irish or “the Rebels.” For that matter, “Cowboys” still exist.

    Speaking of “Rebels,” I can already see the road coming when IT comes under fire for being “racist.” Despite the fact that the University of Mississippi has banned the Confederate flag from the respective stadia of the sports*, we STILL get the “you’re racist” bullshit from the Bobby Big Wheel crowd. So, yes, I’m getting a tad sensitive to what I see coming.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      I think the tongue-in-cheek-but-kinda-not movement to make the “Rebel” refer to the Rebel Alliance and the new mascot Admiral Ackbar was instructive.

      As I said somewhere, I think all nicknames, logos, and mascots that depict or refer to a human of a particular race or ethnicity will eventually be targeted for elimination.

      And your point about the mockery aspect is well-taken. I can’t really wrap my mind around that argument, either. People thinking certain words are offensive – I get that. But I don’t get the idea that you would name your team after something you were trying to mock or deride. Isn’t the joke on you at that point? Why doesn’t a team from Tampa name itself the “Ons?”

  4. elgringoloco says:

    I do think “Redskin” probably does go over the line, but the problem I have and have had is this idea that ALL Native American names (Indians, Chiefs, Braves, Warriors, Fighting Illini, Fighting Sioux, etc….) are some sort of insult to the people. And I get REALLY tired of hipsters deciding that if you do like those nicknames, you’re some sort of racist. I think the Bobby Big Wheel twitter response said it best. There is no “debate,” it’s “you’re wrong, I’m right, and if you think differently, you’re inherently a bad person who we can mock incessantly.”

  5. MIW says:

    First of all, I am a lifelong, passionate Redskins fan. Second of all, I treasure our freedom of speech and am not a fan of chilling free speech in the name of “political correctness.” (We could have an interesting debate about whether money is speech, though, I bet, but that’s not the point!) So, while I might agree with your larger point about media hegemony and the need for a variety of viewpoints, you’ve generally lost me by picking a tricky and — not to try and forestall discussion, but I will also say — indefensible main premise in the Redskins. In this case, you’re trying to paint “Correctness” with the broad, pejorative brush of “Political Correctness.” (But to be sure that you understand my overall stance, let me say that I utterly agree with you about the Katherine Webb flap.)

    I remember vividly going to a Redskins game at RFK with my uncle when I was probably ten or eleven and getting a leaflet from a native group that was there protesting the name. My uncle is an anthropologist who has worked in South America for many many years. He dispassionately explained to me, amidst my total confusion, that many native people find the nickname offensive; it refers to the color of a group of people’s skins; it is a racist (and inaccurate!) description given to a group of people. This couldn’t have made less sense to me at the time. It literally did not — could not — register in my brain. Twenty years later, though, I think back on that moment with a different mind. What he didn’t say then, but that I have reflected on in the intervening years, is the fraught relationship this country has with the Native population. What he didn’t say then was that understanding the racial power dynamics at work in this country is challenging (impossible?) and emotionally charged. What he didn’t even say then was that the protesters were RIGHT. I have come to that conclusion for myself over time.

    In the piece you allude to the general public either a) not really caring or b) thinking the point to be debatable. What the piece fails to do, though, is a) convince me that no one cares, or b) debate the point. Your sharp left-turn to the topic of media hegemony is perfectly fine, but I am left feeling that there’s a hole in the foundation of this argument that needs to be patched before I can follow further. You acknowledge the “puppies-and-ice-cream” possibility that everybody may agree on a topic, but trail off…when it comes to the charged topic in question. “The public DOESN’T agree with this point-of-view being pushed down their throats by the too-sensitive media,” I think I hear you say. Or: “the public is not being properly served by not hearing an alternate view in the media on the issue.” Yet, here we are in 2013 with the ability to write long, thoughtful blog posts. (And/or grossly overlong, rambling comments.) So if there is a deficit of well-rounded debate on the issue, then why not feel free to make the counterargument yourself against these liberal-media-conglomerate-groupthinkers. I’d read it! (natch!)

    So to tip my hand, the reason I use the word “indefensible” to describe this debate over the nickname is that I don’t think there is a convincing counterargument to be made beyond: “we are used to this name, we grew up with it, and we instinctively love it.” That is, of course, a powerful feeling; I certainly feel it; I love the Redskins and have all my life. But now that I’m no longer ten or eleven, I am able (trying!) to look at the world as a larger place and see that the “tradition” of the name (which of course, is barely 80 years old) may not outweigh the problems.

    If the name were “Braves” or “Warriors” or “Chiefs” you might have a reasonable case that it is an honorific. But guys, the name is REDSKINS. Red skins. The defense of “I think people generally seem ok with it” or “somebody polled 768 Native Americans a decade ago and only 9% said they were offended by it” seems thin to specious. Maybe 91% of Native Americans and 99% of Other Americans don’t give a shit, but that doesn’t make the name OK for any reason other than “that’s the way it’s always been.” (I wonder what polls in the 1940s and 50s might have said about Jim Crow? This is not to name-call or shout “racist” in a crowded blog, but rather to say that I think we can all agree that attitudes and prejudices change over time, hopefully for the better.)

    Regardless of polling, what if the team name were the Whiteskins or the Blackskins or the Yellowskins. I would be curious to know if anyone would be willing to defend those names, even on the grounds of tradition. “But who’s offended?” seems to me to be rhetorical thin ice. Also, for one thing, I’m offended. For another thing, if the name were not controversial, why is there controversy? Does this piece posit that the entire debate is manufactured by “liberal media” types? For a third and final thing, in 1990 there were groups protesting the name outside RFK stadium and they handed ten-year-old me a leaflet. Safe to say that they were offended. (Maybe the pollster just didn’t have any of their numbers in 2003.)

    As intelligent, reasonable people we have to be able to look beyond our own personal likes and dislikes and prejudices and comfortable traditions to engage in difficult topics like these. And this blog is too thoughtfully reasoned and written for me to let this one slip past. If I am to follow the logic of this piece and be up in arms about the media-lockstep on this issue (and others?), I first have to be convinced that the media-lockstep isn’t correct in this case. I can’t be up in arms about “political correctness” if I am up in arms about what I see as a racist nickname. I don’t have to think it’s “hate speech” to think it’s wrong speech.

    If this post had centered around the ridiculous Musburger-Webb nonsense, I wouldn’t have been compelled to write a single word. But I had to respond in order to challenge some basic assumptions about the Redskins’ name.

    Debate always encouraged,

    • Tom Garrett says:

      I didn’t know who this was until the end. That compels me to make an effort to have a more thorough response.

      The media stuff aside, here’s what the post is really about. These are not rhetorical questions. I mean them sincerely:

      1. Is offensiveness a valid reason for excluding something from the public sphere?

      2. If so, what is the standard that must be met for that offensiveness to tip things in the direction of “yes, let’s get rid of this?”

      My concern, in short, is that the bar for #2 is getting lower. As someone who believes in free speech in an open society, I worry about that a great deal.

      As for the word “Redskin” itself, I look at it like this: “Colored” is a word that’s used by very, very few people under the age of +/- 70 to describe non-whites. There is one specific context in which that word is still used, and that’s in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. While I might agree that “colored” is somewhat cringe-inducing when decontextualized, context matters a whole lot to me. By the same token, when we’re talking about the football team, Redskins is perfectly fine with me. I understand that others may disagree, and I understand why they do. Reasonable people may differ. And that leads me to my final point.

      To connect this back to the media point, where that element comes in is this: Whatever our answer to #2 above, the decision to exclude something from the public sphere, or to deem something as forbidden to say, is not a decision that should be entered into lightly in a society that values freedom of speech. That is a very serious thing, indeed.

      So, let’s assume we agree that when offensiveness – however we determine that – reaches X, it is best to ban / remove something and condemn and ostracize those who continue its use, although we also acknowledge that this is a very serious step to take.

      Now, consider that, because the media works in near-lockstep on certain topics, they overwhelmingly make the case that the level of offensiveness is X, when, were we omniscient, we would see that the level is only Y.

      This is a labored hypothetical, but what I’m trying to say is that, even for people who are ok with curbing offensive content in some way, doing so should be a serious matter. If the media skews the perception of how offensive something is, we start to become more comfortable with such measures, and take such steps when the situation doesn’t warrant it.

      In the case of the Redskins, let’s say that a large majority of both the general fanbase and the Native American population were fine with the name. I suspect, as I mentioned in the article, that there are many who would still say the name should be changed. That is Mike Wise’s position.

      I worry about a society in which any offense can be used as justification to engineer our discourse.

      One final point: I think my comments about political correctness have been misinterpreted, and that’s probably my fault for not conveying them more clearly. I was trying to say that we’re “past” the PC argument altogether, broadly speaking.

      A huge portion of the country, and a majority of people under 30, have bought into the idea that the answer to #1 is a passionate, wholehearted “yes.” The anti-PC people’s objection to political correctness was that it was silly to change things because a minority of people were offended, especially since our society was much more easily offended (and entitled) than they had been in earlier years.*

      I think that argument is over. The classic liberal idea (which I embrace) has become a minority viewpoint. In fact, I think trying to float the idea on a college campus in this era of “free speech zones” might get you sanctioned somehow.

      It is pointless to debate the media on point #1, because they all seem to agree. As I said in the article, this is ironic in light of their educational backgrounds. I’m sure they still teach the importance of free speech in American journalism schools.

      The way to make the media look foolish on this point is to attack with argument #2. Meaning, if you give a Mike Wise enough rope, he’ll hang himself with quotes like the one in the piece above, about which even those who accept certain tenets of what we used to call “political correctness” might get squeamish.

      I need to plug myself into the wall for a while and recharge my brain. All this typing has worn me down. But I thank you for reading, and for your lengthy, well-thought-out response. I am always happy to continue the discussion, so feel free to respond. Perhaps we could even do a podcast on the subject, as talking requires less energy and time than writing, and that agrees with my laziness.


      *=Strictly speaking, that part wasn’t true. It was just that people were more easily offended about CERTAIN things. Namely, “group” politics. Race, ethnicity, etc. People were far LESS-easily offended about things related to nudity or religion, for instance.

      • MIW says:

        Tom, this will be my last (posted) thought on the subject since, I completely agree that writing takes too much energy and time. To get to the heart of your thoughtful response, which I appreciate, I will quickly answer your two main questions:
        1) In a word: Yes. We live in a civil society. And while I completely understand and agree with your concern for context, I still don’t think that the context of “football team” protects the name “redskins.” Just because we love our team and there’s no malice intended? Just a reminder: the word itself is pejorative. Again: what if it was Blackskins? Just because “we’ve loved the Blackskins all our lives and rooted for them since childhood” doesn’t mean the name’s not insulting and/or harmful. Or coarse or unkind or questionable… Really, why bother having a name like that at all? The NAACP example also seems off-kilter in that no Native Americans were involved in the naming of the (Boston/)Washington football team; nor is the NFL an organization devoted to the uplift of Native populations; the C in NAACP is just a legacy from a different time, not a slur. And in terms of “offensiveness” and “free speech,” one is still allowed to use all the ethnic slurs one wants in the privacy of one’s own home, but being cognizant that words/terms/labels can be powerful and harmful (even if unintended) in the PUBLIC sphere is a natural part of progress in a civilized world. I mean I hope.
        2) Have we reached a cultural point where we’re actually worried that removing an ethnic slur from a major sports franchise might have a “chilling effect” on racist sports team names? If so, I’m all for it.


        • Tom Garrett says:

          I’m going to keep this short for the same reason. We should do a podcast about this, though. I just want to address the last point: I don’t see this as something confined to a team nickname. I see the nickname as an example of a larger societal trend. And my larger concerns about the way the media interacts with and “reports” on controversial issues is still in play.

          One issue we have as a culture now is that we seem to take any controversial issue, and, somehow, the view opposite of ours becomes that of people who must not be taken seriously, or should even be ridiculed as a matter of course. This was something else that Wise supposedly advocated in his remarks at that symposium.

          What I mean is: If it’s 2003, and you aren’t on board with the Iraq War, you’re not a patriot. If it’s now, and you don’t support gay marriage, well, you must be a bigot, plain and simple. If you are comfortable with the word Redskins as a team nickname, you’re probably a racist, or at least you are accepting of racism.

          I’m not suggesting that *your* views lack nuance, but I’m saying that those are the stark terms of the debate (which is really a monologue) for many people. That would be ok if that sort of language were confined to highly-politicized websites. It would even be somewhat tolerable if such rhetoric were at least presented alongside the other view in major outlets. But when the Washington Post unofficially makes it clear that not only is this their collective view, and they will provide myriad columns to that effect, but that they also ridicule those who take the opposing view, I see that as a major problem and a possible compromise of credibility.

          I think the following things are all more or less certainties: 1. The Redskins will change their name eventually if the NFL survives long enough. 2. Football as we know it will cease to exist. 3. The Washington Post in its current form will go out of business.

          I don’t know in what order those things will happen. Best guess would be #1, #3, and #2, although it’s possible the Post may shutter before the Redskins change their name.

          Let’s do a podcast.

  6. Pingback: Let’s Talk About That Infamous 2004 ‘Redskins’ Poll | Mr. Irrelevant, a D.C. Sports Blog by the Brothers Mottram

  7. Matt says:

    I’ve been saying for a while now, that being “offended” is how we shut down debate. If the other side is winning on facts, just act offended. You win the debate and you don’t even have to deal with the pesky facts.

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