Fans of the burgundy and gold, don’t roll your eyes. For many Native Americans, the slur “Redskin” is just as offensive as the N-word. When I visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 2007, a man named Leonard Littlefinger told me that if I walked into a bar on the reservation and said “Redskins,” I would possibly be knocked unconscious.
And the issue is gaining new attention: This past week, Washington Post columnist Cortland Milloy excoriated the name in a column, and Mayor Vincent Gray said that if the Redskins want to return to D.C. — they’ve played home games in Landover since 1997 — they might have to lose the tomahawks.
“I think it has become a lightning rod,” Gray said, “and I would love to be able to sit down with the team . . . and see if a change should be made.”
Even sidelined with a knee injury after he was left for too long in last Sunday’s season-ender against the Seattle Seahawks, RGIII could make this happen. At just 22 years old, he has the owner’s ear and the city’s heart. With his incredible QB skills and laid-back demeanor, this transcendent kid from Texas could be the Chosen One, all right — the one person who could make Redskins owner Daniel Snyder come to his senses and realize that it’s time to stop demeaning Native Americans simply because his paraphernalia sells and because, as the story goes, the future billionaire had a Redskins belt buckle as a boy.
But I fear that Griffin is not that guy, and not just because he’ll be focused for the next few months on physical therapy. No young, dynamic leader of an NFL team is that guy. Pro players who take on controversial social debates are gone, replaced by athletes whose goal is to not offend — because that would mean fewer commercials, a loss of sponsors and, God forbid, a Q rating lower than Michael Jordan’s.
There is no Muhammad Ali, who lost his heavyweight boxing title as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. There is no Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back in NFL history, who found more meaning in bringing rival L.A. gang members together than in playing on the gridiron, where, he realized, he was just “a highly paid, over-glamorized gladiator.”
There is no Arthur Ashe, the late tennis champion and civil rights activist, who in 1985 was arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington during an anti-apartheid rally. There’s not even a Curt Flood, the St. Louis Cardinal who didn’t accept a trade to another team in 1969, appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case that paved the way for free agency.
Instead of Alis, Browns, Ashes or Floods, who do we have? Only RGIII — a young man with a pocketful of sponsorships.