NOW THAT DAN SNYDER has finally taken control as the Washington Redskins' new owner, now that he's fired half the front office and shoved aside the general manager and laid down the law to overstuffed linemen, fumble-fingered receivers and the whole underachieving lot out at Redskin Park, there's one more thing he should do to get the franchise off to a fresh start.

He should change the team's name.

He should find some name that isn't offensive to millions of Americans -- that isn't casually and almost cheerfully racist. Some name that doesn't evoke past episodes that fill many people with shame. Some name, any name, that sounds more like the 21st century than the 19th.

I hear the whisper of eyes glazing over, punctuated by the snap of minds slamming shut. Political correctness! goes the collective grumble. What about tradition? No intent to hurt anybody. Soon half the dictionary will be off-limits.

Well, there's some truth to that. Political correctness is a fat and tempting target, one that often deserves its lumps. Freedom of speech is supposed to mean just that, not freedom to speak the way I'd like you to speak.

But there's more truth to the proposition that "correctness" is sometimes nothing more than doing what's obviously correct -- simply observing the fact that, as everyone's grandmother used to say, what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong. An inadvertent slight is one thing, but intentional insult and injury is another.

It's wrong. And that's what we're doing every time we break into a chorus of "Hail to the Redskins."

Maybe there was a day when sports teams could call themselves Redskins or Braves and imagine that nobody minded; when the Cleveland Indians could use a bug-eyed caricature as their logo in utter innocence; when the "tomahawk chop" and woo-woo-woo "war chants" were nothing but good clean ballpark fun. But that day, if it ever existed, belongs to the distant past.

We've long since been put on notice. Native American organizations and individuals have complained for years that these names, images and antics are insulting. Back when the issue first arose, a number of institutions listened -- Stanford University, for example, ceased calling its teams the Indians and renamed them the Cardinal. It seemed that a consensus formed to stop mocking the people who lived in this land before any of the rest of us arrived.

But then the wave crested, and broke, and washed back out. We still have the Redskins, the Braves, the Indians, the mascots and all the rest. Why?

Well, for one thing, people love tradition -- and many of these team names have decades of tradition behind them. Fans, players, coaches and sportswriters all have fond memories of historic contests, and memory is always bound up with identity -- and identity is always bound up with names. So the argument was advanced that the Indian-related names, far from being an insult, were in fact a way of "honoring" Native American culture. Never mind that the people who were being honored didn't feel that way.

I think there's another reason, though: numbers. There are about 2 million Native Americans in the United States. In a total population of more than 270 million, that's not enough to make many waves. In other words, we may be offending people with these names, but we're not offending very many people, so what's the problem?

Is that too cynical? Well, can you imagine a team called the Washington Darkies? Would any college field a team called the Fightin' Yoruba? What about the Houston Hispanics for a new soccer franchise? What is it, except numbers, that makes those names unacceptable but Indian-derived names just fine?

What's in a name, anyway? Well, we have a sterling local example. A few years ago, Abe Pollin, owner of the then-Washington Bullets, decided that his team's name was inappropriate in a city that had suffered an epidemic of handgun violence. So he decided to change it.

Yeah, right, he had a contest and we ended up with the "Wizards," a name nobody likes. But even if the result wasn't optimal, the impulse was just right. Names matter. Names define an identity, announce an intention, set a tone. Names can be bouquets or weapons. Anybody who's ever been called "Fatso" knows this is true.

Earlier this summer, I asked Dan Snyder if he was thinking about changing the Redskins' name. He spoke of tradition, of how the name "honored" Native Americans, of how some poll had indicated that "most people" didn't think the name was racist anyway. In a word, no.

He should think again. This is the nation's capital, this is the turn of the century. Can't we at least spend a nice Sunday afternoon at a football game without going out of our way to make an entire group of Americans feel like their role in this land of ours -- once, this land of theirs -- is to stand in front of cigar stores?

Eugene Robinson is The Post's assistant managing editor/Style.