Robert Pollin is distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Dan Snyder has dug himself into a deep hole on the Washington Redskins’ name. It may be, as Snyder claims, that there are many Native Americans who do not consider the term “redskin” a racist slur. But large numbers of them do, and they are almost certainly a substantial majority. The longer Snyder resists giving respect to these people, the more damage he will inflict on his football team.
I speak as a Redskins fan from before Snyder was born. Few Redskins supporters of any generation can match my credentials. When my brother was born in 1957, my parents, Abe and Irene Pollin, asked me to suggest names for the baby. Without hesitation, I proposed James Edward, in honor of then-Redskins halfback Jim Podoley and quarterback Eddie LeBaron. The amazing thing was that my father was also such a huge Redskins guy that — with my mother’s assent, of course — James Edward Pollin was launched into the world 57 years ago.
Admittedly, my family’s Redskins obsession diminished somewhat in 1964, when my father bought the Baltimore Bullets basketball team, later to become the Washington Bullets. My brother Jim and I grew up with Bullets banners, T-shirts, sweatshirts, baby bibs, team photos and signed basketballs all over the house. The Bullets were easy to love in the 1960s and 1970s, since they were consistently wonderful. Gus Johnson, Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were all Bullets of that era, and they are all now in the Basketball Hall of Fame. My father wore his 1978 Bullets championship ring every day until his passing in 2009.
But as most people in the D.C. area know, my father also had a strong social conscience. The severe problem of gun violence in the region concerned him deeply. That is why, over time, he became increasingly uncomfortable with the name of his beloved basketball team. He recognized full well that changing the name of his team was not about to end gun violence anywhere. But he felt that he could at least stop contributing to making gun violence seem cool through an association with Monroe, Unseld and other Bullets’ greats.
My father’s thinking on this matter became settled after the assassination in 1995 of the great Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was also my father’s close friend. Rabin had risked his entire political career in an effort to build a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. For his efforts, he was murdered at a peace rally in Tel Aviv by a fellow Israeli Jew.
After that terrible day, my father told me, “That’s it. Yitzhak was killed by an assassin’s bullet. I can’t have my team connected in any way with people killing other people with bullets.” Most Bullets fans at the time objected strongly to my father’s decision, as did many players who wore the Bullets uniform, including members of the 1978 championship team. But my father would not budge.
Over the years, it became clear that the people who loved and supported the Bullets continued to love and support the Wizards. The Wizards today of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Nene are a fabulous, exciting, rising team. They would not be one iota better, nor would they have one more fan, if they were called the Bullets.
To date, Snyder appears out of touch. But this gives him a great opportunity to surprise us and demonstrate his true grit. He can reiterate his own position: that he had been resisting the name change out of respect for generations of Redskins fans and his own love of the team’s traditions. But he then simply has to admit that he has been wrong. He needs to recognize that the most ethical thing he can do is to stop upholding a name that Native Americans consider a racist slur. Through making such a courageous decision, Snyder would earn the respect of his community and create a massive new wave of support for his football team.
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