Last month, a group of Virginia state senators and delegates formed the “Redskins Pride Caucus,” to defend the Ashburn-based team and its name, which has come under attack from some Native American groups. Fairfax State Sen. Chap Petersen (D) led the charge to form the caucus, hold a press conference and declare their support for the team and the name. I asked him if we could discuss this in an e-mail chat and he agreed. Most of the following occurred during about an hour-long span one afternoon last week:
Q: Chap, I know you’re a lifelong Redskins fan, as am I, and last year you wrote a strident defense of the Redskins name. But it seems the momentum is gradually turning against the name. You could have sat back quietly and watched. Instead you stepped up and formed a caucus of state senators and delegates to defend the name, the Redskins Pride Caucus? Why fight for this particular cause, when you could wind up (cliché alert) on The Wrong Side of History?
A: Tom: Thanks for the question. My main motivation in getting involved is simply to be a voice for Redskins fans. The second is to support a Virginia-based business, which has been getting unfairly blasted for simply retaining a brand that is one of the most significant and successful in the history of American sports. Finally, I’m trying to bring some balance to the debate, especially in light of the one-sided portrayal of this issue in the media. There is so much misinformation out there.
In regard to whether my speaking out helps or hurts my own political career, I really don’t give a damn. I’m proud to be a Redskins fan and I say so publicly. Let the chips fall.
Q: The National Congress of American Indians began campaigning against names such as the Redskins in 1968. What do you say to Native Americans who say the name is a racial slur?
A: First of all, I doubt that any one advocacy group “speaks for” a population as diverse and heterogenous as the American Indians. I also wonder if the campaign against the “Redskins” has the grass roots support of ordinary tribal people, or is their number one grievance amidst unemployment and other issues. (Perhaps NCAI could sponsor a referendum on that topic?) As to people now claiming that “Redskin” is a racial slur, I would simply say: It’s the historic name of a professional football team, nothing more, nothing less. If you claim it means something else, then show me some proof. For me, it will always be a symbol of pride and unity in the D.C. area which is exemplified by great Redskins such as Joe Gibbs or Darrell Green.
Q: Well the proof that it means something else is the NCAI’s report from last year which calls the term “Redskin” “violent and racially derived…a term meant to disparage and denote inferiority and savagery in American culture.” Those who would agree with this characterization include the NCAA, which has forced numerous schools to change their mascots, and the ACLU, plus the fact that the man who named the team was an open, avowed racist. Yes, Joe Gibbs and Darrell Green were great Redskins, but their greatness had nothing to do with the team’s name. If the team were called the Players or the Generics, we would still have the same pride and unity in their accomplishments.
A: An advocacy group citing its own report is hardly objective evidence, especially when they are so invested in working to change the public perception of a single word. I wonder if the editors of The Washington Post would react so passively if the natives of Brazil were to attack the word “Amazon” as being racially offensive (and anti-woman) and demand that the brand name be changed. I hardly think so. The remainder of your “question” seems to reflect your own opinions. Of course, you’re free to call the team whatever you want, including “the Generics.” As for me, I prefer “the Redskins.”
Q: Yes, that is my opinion: That Joe Gibbs and Darrell Green would have performed the same regardless of the team’s name. Do you disagree with that?
A: I do. You minimize the entire issue to “the team name.” But it’s much more than that. Coach Gibbs always talked about “the Redskins Way” and what it meant “to be a Redskin.” If you look back at the ’80s and early ’90s championships (when the Post used to mail out free Redskins bumper stickers with their football issue), the Redskins symbol was endemic to the team’s identity: a group of over-achieving veterans who sacrificed personal goals to play as a team. Yes, that unique identity and brand was critical to the TEAM’s success. Incidentally, the Redskins Marching Band and “Hail to the Redskins” fight song also made the RFK stadium experience one of the most unique in the NFL. Again, those traditions would all be jettisoned in the Brave New World of Political Correctness. (Am I still allowed to say “brave” anymore or is that also banned?)
Q: Your point seems to mirror Daniel Snyder’s, that the tradition of “Redskins” is simply too powerful to discard. There have been other traditions in this country – slavery, killing of Native Americans, institutional racism – that we later decided were bad traditions. Many feel this name invokes a tradition of demeaning Native Americans, and that should trump the tradition of a pro football team. Why can’t the tradition of the team continue under a different name? They would still have the same colors, play in the same stadium and play for the same fans.
A: So your point is that cheering for the Washington Redskins is the equivalent of “killing native Americans or slavery”? That is a truly amazing stretch and yet, unfortunately, predictable. The fight over the Redskins identity is frankly small potatoes, but what is over-arching is the default position of political correctness when confronted with opposition – “if you don’t agree with me, then you are a racist!” If you can’t do better than that logic, then don’t be surprised that the majority of Americans (and 67% of Northern Virginians according to WTOP) still support keeping the team name.
Q: I was trying to say some traditions are bad, not that cheering for the Redskins is equal to slavery. I would be guilty too. But since you mentioned “small potatoes,” let’s finish with this: Why are Virginia politicians spending time on this at all, when some would say that they have weightier matters to worry about?
A: Thanks Tom for the questions. Glad this is the final one! I never intended my love of the Redskins to be a political statement. It’s not. However, I did feel called to respond once the U.S. Senate got involved and made “team names” a political issue. Trust me, I’d like to go back to the old days. Anyway, this is just one of many, many state issues I’ve spoken on this year but it may be the most popular (judging from the positive comments I’ve received). Of course, others feel differently. In that respect, I’m happy to accept a beating from the critics – and let the Redskins focus on winning in 2014!