Courtland Milloy on the Washington Redskins' Nickname

The U.S. Supreme Court might take up the Redskins' controversial nickname.
The U.S. Supreme Court might take up the Redskins' controversial nickname. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In response to widespread disagreement over the meaning of the name Redskins, I have crafted this interpretive totem pole of words, in lieu of a peace pipe, to help guide at least some Washington football team fans along the path to enlightenment.

"What [Redskins] means is tradition, what it means is competitiveness, what it means is honor," team owner Daniel Snyder has said. "It is not meant to be derogatory."

Let us meditate on this. Is our home team really competitive? Is there honor in being the highest grossing (some would also say gouging) franchise in the NFL and not winning so much as an NFC East championship since 1999?

Snyder's claim that the name is honorific might soon be tested before the U.S. Supreme Court, which was asked last week to rule on whether Redskins is too offensive a nickname to merit trademark protection. The suit was filed by Native Americans angry over a name they say is offensive and injurious.

It would be fitting if the highest court in the land would take on a legal issue that is sweeping the land.

In North Dakota, for instance, the state's Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribes ended a decades-long struggle in May when the University of North Dakota agreed to drop the use of the "Fighting Sioux" nickname.

Opponents of banning disparaging names and mascots have argued, as California Assemblyman Richard Dickerson (R-Redding) put it, "If we begin to write pieces of legislation to try to make sure no group of people is offended by the actions of another group, my question is, where would it stop?"

What Dickerson and others critics of so-called "political correctness" appear not to understand is that the movement toward enlightenment has already begun.

During the past 30 years, more than two-thirds of the nation's estimated 3,000 schools with Indian mascots or nicknames have changed them.

Everybody is starting to see the light. Even here.

Both the D.C. Council and the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments have voted for resolutions saying that the Washington football team name is disparaging and should be changed. Many newspapers have taken courageous stands on the subject, too, such as the editorial that appeared in a 2003 edition of Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star:

"Readers of the sports pages may notice a change in the newspaper's style beginning today: We have stopped using the nickname 'Redskins' to refer to the professional football team of the nation's capital. When we're reporting on that team, we call it Washington."

The Portland Press Herald in Maine banned the use of "Redskins" in 2000, explaining to readers that the word derived from a genocidal practice of scalping indigenous peoples and collecting a bounty for their bloody "redskins."

These kinds of changes don't require legislation, just a conscience. Shame if our home team goes down in history as the last of the 19th century-minded holdouts.

Journey back to 1933, when the showman and pandering marketer George Preston Marshall renamed his Boston Braves football team "Redskins" and, four years later, relocated them to Washington. The name had nothing to do with "honoring Indian heritage," as Marshall would claim. It was just an entertainers' gimmick from a man who'd just as soon field a blackface basketball team if he could make a buck off it.

Asked if he was anti-Semitic, Marshall reportedly said, "Oh, no, I love Jews, especially when they're customers."

Still, we need not forget that our home team -- three-time Super Bowl champs -- has been one of most beloved in the NFL. (Not Sunday, of course, when they were loudly booed at FedEx Field for the pathetic way they eked out a 9-7 win over the hapless St. Louis Rams.)

It does appear at times that this team has really bad karma. So inhale deeply now and hold this thought:

"For 17 seasons since we filed our lawsuit in 1992, the team has changed owners, coaches, players, uniforms, logos and even stadiums and still never made it back to the Super Bowl," said Suzan Harjo, a D.C. resident who is Cheyenne and Muscogee and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the team. "You have to think that there's nothing left to try except changing the name and joining the rest of us in the 21st century."

Now exhale. Release that toxin.

Let the name go.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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