BENAC: Redskins name battle is a complex debate

The Washington Redskins have once again come under fire from Native Americans and civil liberty groups for their team name, a name these groups consider offensive. After all, redskin doesn’t exactly refer to the team’s favorite potato but instead refers to antiquated slang for Native Americans.

The Redskins and other national teams have been pushed to change their Indian-derived names, but most have refused to budge. This latest Redskins controversy arose after an emphatic statement from owner Daniel Snyder.

“We’ll never change the name of the team. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps,” he said in an interview with USA Today.

Snyder’s reasons are simple: he considers the Redskins name to be a tradition and (perhaps more importantly) a brand name. Fans have been attending Redskins games since 1932 when the team was located in Boston and actually named the Braves.

“I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means,” he said.

There is some truth to this argument: names have power. The Redskins have had their successes and failures, but they have maintained a solid presence in the NFL for nearly a century.

In spite of the complexity of the situation, a solution has been proposed for the Redskins situation: a city councilman in Washington D.C. believes they could and should change their name to the Redtails.

Practically, the name change isn’t awful: Redtails will fit phonetically and rhythmically into Redskins chants. The councilman even suggests using a redtailed hawk and keeping the feather on the Redskins insignia.

But what does Redtails mean? What is the history of the word in relation to the Washington Redskins?

There’s no history: it’s a name suggested by a politician, not a sports fan. Are fans going to want to watch the Washington Redtails? Politicians argue yes.

Not according to online sports forum commentators. While this is purely circumstantial evidence, they are saying the Redskins would lose hundreds, potentially thousands of fans who are attached to the name and the tradition of the Washington Redskins and who would be unable to identify with the Washington Redtails.

These fans highlight the belief, held by a wide group of sports fans, that a team runs the risk of losing its identity with a simple name change, especially if the name is steeped in enough tradition.

Fair enough, but consider how offensive it is for the remaining Native Americans in our country to watch a game and hear the word Redskins barked out at them. Or for them to watch the Indians and the Braves and spot the cute, but crude Indian caricatures of their team ensignias.

High school and college teams across the nation have tried to play “fair and understanding,” by heeding the call to change their name. The East Michigan Hurons are now the Eagles. The Oklahoma City Chiefs are now the Stars. Some schools, such as North Dakota now have no mascot, simply dropping the Fighting Sioux from their name.

Other high schools and colleges are going the pro route and are refusing to budge. Central Michigan is still the Chippewas. Escanaba is still the Eskymos. These teams still maintain their team name in spite of pushes for change from community leaders.

One of the big arguments some people put forth against name change is their belief that Native Americans are simply being too sensitive about these team names.

“That happened a hundred years ago! None of us alive ever did any of that stuff! It’s just time to let bygones be bygones and move on. You have rights. You have your casinos! These names aren’t offensive, they’re just fun!”

This argument is more than a little facetious and it’s a hard line for a lot of Native Americans to swallow.

Let’s dip into the history of Native American and European conflict during the early days of European settlement. Stick with me here, we’re going in deep.

The cold hard truth of the situation is that European settlement was… difficult for the Native American population. It’s original population of about 50-100 million before European settlement has dropped to about 2.9 million in 2010. That’s a minimum 94 percent population drop. Native Americans now make up roughly 0.9 percent of the population of the country.

A vast majority of the deaths that occurred in the Native American population were the results of new diseases settlers accidentally brought, which the Native Americans’ bodies weren’t prepared to fight. These deaths aren’t the settlers fault but they did occur.

Most of the remainder of the deaths came in the endless frontier wars and battles between early British, Spanish and French settlers as well as early American citizens. These nasty, bitter conflicts saw horrible behavior on both sides that can’t be denied or explained away, but it was the Native Americans who ultimately lost.

I’m not trying to give readers a liberal guilt trip to make you feel bad about our collective history. One cannot live their lives atoning for the sins of their ancestors. Sadly, there is nothing we can do to change what has happened and no amount of angst-filled hand wringing can change that fact.

However, try to imagine being a modern Native American and being called a redskin. Or even just an Indian. These words rub salt on the wounds of time and although they aren’t quite as loaded with the thick context of hatred that they once were, they are still the phrases of a conqueror that are not easy for the conquered to swallow.

This is why I think the Native American population has a legitimate reason to feel insulted by these team names and why it would be wrong for us as a country to deny this fact or a more troubled aspect of our historical culture.

But now we’re back to tradition, how it forms and what it means. America is a country of great tradition, understanding and respect. We value our tradition and our values and the world of sports is no different.

Early on in sports history, team names changed regularly as they tried to plough a field of tradition. Team names, leagues and even unified rules were being altered on a near daily basis. This was when the name Redskins or Braves were words that suggested a fighting spirit to early sportsmen that they wished to emulate.

Time passes long-held team names start to have an inherent power and a draw that’s nearly like an incantation to a sports fan. It goes beyond simply being a team name and becomes an identity that transcends sports, players and even the team location.

The name Washington Redskins means something positive to millions of people across the country: it is a tradition and changing the name may make it more difficult for fans to relate to the team. The name also means something negative to millions of people who believe it represents racism, oppression and negative cultural thought.

Perhaps more importantly, Washington Redskins is a name that has business power and a corporate draw that brings millions of dollars to Washington D.C. and which creates economic stimulus through employment and tourism. These facts make this debate complex.

Morally, I have many issues with the use of antiquated and racially loaded words like Redskin. Pragmatically, I don’t want a city, town or even a state to fall into an economic slump because they lost their tradition, identity and their sports team.

Imagine Cleveland without the Indians. Or Atlanta without the Braves. These towns have solid business infrastructures, but without the billions of dollars that such big name sports teams bring to the town, they’d be destroyed.

However, I’d hate to be the one trying to explain the pragmatic necessity of the name Washington Redskins to a Native American for whom the name feels like a slap in the face to their entire cultural history, who feels nothing but what they feel is centuries of oppression from such a simple combination of syllables.

That’s the power of words, ladies and gentlemen: the power to divide and the power to unite. It’s why I don’t think this team name debate will ever be settled within our lifetime. The issues are deeper than racism or tradition and stretch back into the heart of our nation’s history. It’s a debate that has no black and white solution and a debate whose end will please nobody.