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Football Fabulosa-Nicknames, words and their intended meaning

What’s in a nickname? In case you have been hiding under a rock, the controversy de jour in the sports world continues to be the the name for that professional sports team in Washington D.C. You know the one. It purports to be named in ‘honor” or as owner Daniel Snyder recently said:

“The name was never a label,” Snyder said in the letter. “It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor.”

Snyder cites scant real evidence to support this assertion beyond pointing out that well there were Native Americans on the team when the name was the Boston Redskins and that the coach was Native American. Snyder could go on to say this little gem:

“Washington Redskins is more than a name we have called our football team for over eight decades,” Snyder wrote. “It is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect — the same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the original Americans.”

He would go on to cite examples of polls that indicate Native Americans are in large part not offended by the nickname and that he would NEVER change the name.  Snyder insists the name isn’t intended to dishonor Native Americans but in fact to honor them. No matter what you think about the controversy, these words ring hollow. The nickname is a racial slur and no amount of spin can change that simple fact.

To be clear here, I’m not in the business of looking to be offended by things. As a lifelong football fan who has followed professional sports from the time she can remember, I only recently became attuned to the offensiveness of the nickname. It’s a testament to the power and draw of the NFL that the nickname has survived for so long. It also serves as a reminder that Native Americans have bigger issues to worry about and that the disenfranchised rarely have a big voice in matters such as these.

Therein lies the problem and the solution here. Despite whatever intentions the name originally had or served, it remains inescapable that the name is a racial slur. It’s a reminder of the atrocious treatment of America collectively toward those who already lived here when Europeans began to colonize this part of our world. We already disenfranchised them and drove them into poverty in many cases. Must we ‘honor” them by using a racial slur as the name of a professional football team? We can and should do better.

This is where the NFL as a powerful entity can and should make a difference much like it did when gay slurs became an issue. After San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made some extremely offensive remarks on the issue of having a homosexual team mate, he was forced to apologize and undergo sensitivity training. The NFL has made it clear it will not tolerate gay slurs and it should do the same with racial slurs toward Native Americans. 

It’s a powerful message when an entity like the NFL sends a strong warning that it won’t tolerate behavior that is offensive and carries with it an inherent culture of hatred toward others. Despite whatever intentions originally existed with the nickname, it has now become tainted with the stain of being a racial slur. Certainly there are other issues of greater importance but nothing is ever going to take away the taint. If anything the controversy shows I’m not alone is my enlightenment toward the name. We are all enlightened now and we should move to correct this situation in the only way it can be. The nickname must  be changed.

Recent developments have given hope that such a change could be in the works. It was announced today that Washington owner Dan Synder is scheduled to meet with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell this week. This meeting comes in advance of Goodell meeting with representatives of the Oneida Indian Nation over the controversial nickname. There is also going to be a gathering of representatives from other Native American representatives in advance of that meeting. There is a groundswell of support in favor of changing the name. The time has come and it must be done.

How powerful would it be for Goodell and Synder to announce they have listened to those who believe the name should be changed? What a great message it would be for the NFL to continue to advance the message that hatred toward others will not be tolerated and that a name change is a step in the right direction toward the advancement of that cause. Many believe the name change is inevitable and there is no real reason to delay.

The answer of course is that it would be a great message and a victory for proponents who feel words can have power beyond their intended meaning and that hatred and disrespect based on ethnicity should never be tolerated. It falls in line with the NFL’s recent stance that hatred toward those based on sexual orientation won’t be tolerated. Any advancement toward eradicating such hatred should be pursued and celebrated. Then perhaps someday the league will take a similar stance toward women and the rampant misogyny that pervades the sports world. That, however, is a topic for another day.

photo by: Keith Allison

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