Today's football game features the top-ranked Whiteys against the second-place Darkies, who got tarred and feathered the last time the two teams faced off. The Whiteys and the Darkies entered the imaginary league amid complaints that such names were inappropriate and offensive, but owners and fans alike insist the monikers are terms of endearment -- no different than, say, the Redskins.

"Whitey means all-powerful, superior, masters of the game," one fan said. "It has nothing to do with racism, slavery or bilking American Indians out of Manhattan for $24 worth of beads."

Fans for the opposing team are just as adamant.

"Darkie means having melanin, which protects your skin from the sun and lets you work longer on the field," one said. "There is nothing derogatory about it. Back in the day, people would rub a darkie's head for good luck. They wouldn't do that unless they admired them for their magical powers."

The most die-hard Redskins fans no doubt understand. To them, making a mascot out of a people that were nearly exterminated on their homeland is the ultimate show of respect. Makes all the schizophrenic sense in the world.

Orin Starn, an anthropologist at Duke University and author of "Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last 'Wild' Indian," puts it this way: "From very early on, there is this dual desire to either kill or remove them [American Indians] to make way for the United States -- and, on the other hand, to romanticize them, to admire them, to be like them."

The latter occurring only after the Indians die, of course.

At the turn of the 20th century, Starn noted, when the demise of the Native American appeared all but imminent, the Indian began to be seen as "a noble, primitive man in touch with nature, a master of the arts of hunting and fishing."

In 1933, George Preston Marshall coined the name "Redskins" for his football team "out of respect for American Indian heritage," as he put it at the time. And to this day, Dan Snyder, the current owner, maintains that the name means "tradition" and "competitiveness" and "honor." Banning demeaning imagery is not about principle, but whether the oppressed group can muster enough protesters to affect the profit margin.

Never mind that the word is a slur -- used as "redskinned devils" in a novel published in 1871, "every greasy redskin" in the Rocky Mountain News in 1890 and "the most treacherous red skins" in the Denver Daily News that same year.

To better understand the adverse effects of using Native American imagery in sports, see the short documentary "If the Name Has to Go . . . " by Quiet Coyote Productions. The film includes efforts by Native American students at the University of North Dakota, home of the Fighting Sioux, to get a new mascot.

"At first, I thought the name an honor. Then I came to realize that it's just a trophy," said Al White, an Iroquois and a student at the university. "I had one friend who took his 4-year-old son to basketball games, and the boy would ask him, 'Dad, why are they saying those things about us?'

"The boy knew he was a Sioux, and the opposing fans were saying things like 'Sioux [expletive]' and '[Expletive] the Sioux,' and his dad couldn't explain it. So rather than allowing his son to be debased, they stopped going to basketball games."

Native Americans argue that there would be an outcry if other, more politically powerful groups of people felt similarly slandered and denigrated. So let's get on with today's fantasy game and find out.

In this classic matchup, the Whiteys have a quarterback who thinks fast on his feet and is very smart when it comes to analyzing the gestalt of the game. Or so the TV commentators say. The Darkies, to their credit, have a quarterback who is strong and, boy, he runs faster than a water bug on crack.

And here come the mascots. For the Whiteys: a giant saltine cracker. For the Darkies: a watermelon rolling on 20-inch rims.

Offensive? Not as long as such newspaper headlines as "Redskins Get Skinned Alive" are upsetting only because the team lost.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com