When we get through this moment — and make no mistake, we are living through history on fronts both medical and societal — it’s pretty clear there won’t be a statue of Robert E. Lee in the center of Richmond. Fort Bragg won’t be named after another Confederate general but perhaps an actual American hero instead. It’s 2020, and it would have been nice if righting past wrongs didn’t require nationwide unrest, but it would be a shame to miss the moment now that the unrest is here, to be heard and understood, forever and ever, amen.
Which brings us to the Washington Redskins.
Now is the time. Sorry, long past the time. Daniel Snyder, look around at this broken country. The best we can hope is that the death of George Floyd while in police custody leads us to someplace better, that we’re more able to understand the perspective of others, or at least listen to them, think about them, embrace them.
If the NFL season opens as planned with training camps this summer, Washington’s team should do so under another name. Under its new name. Whatever that might be. Put it on the ballot, and then mail it in!
There long has been an opportunity for Snyder, the team’s owner for the past two decades, to be on the right side of history as it pertains to the nickname, which is offensive on the face of it. To be fair, Snyder had polling of Native Americans — first by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2004, then by The Washington Post in 2016 — that showed, overwhelmingly, they were not offended by the name.
But if it wasn’t obvious then, it sure is now. The same arguments for changing the name that have been applied over the years apply now: If even some Native Americans are offended, that’s too many. The prism through which we see them has changed, and that’s great. It’s not an honorific. It is a stereotype at a time when we can’t afford them because we need to see people not as groups defined by their differences but as individuals defined by what we all share, which is a base level of humanity.
I have never before written that the team should change its name, even though I strongly believed it should. I’ll admit: The issue felt tired, particularly in the wake of polling that made it seem, at least for some, like a war not worth waging.
So my way of dealing with the name to this point: Cite it on the first reference in a story or column, then avoid it the rest of the way, referring instead to “Washington.” (A sportswriter’s special stress: It can make for some grammatical gymnastics to get subject-verb agreement.) It’s how I made peace with the reality that Snyder long ago had dug in his heels and had plenty of people with him, but marked a small, imperceptible protest of my own.
I was wrong to handle it that way, and it took the events of the past two weeks for me to understand that. Silence is complicity. Change the name.
It’s clear, by now, that we’re not living in 2004 or 2016 or even late 2019. Floyd is dead, and in the 8 minutes 46 seconds it took to force the last breath out of him, the country changed. In the light of everything we’re going through — everything that still must change — a football team’s nickname is minor.
But that doesn’t mean changing it isn’t the right thing to do. Or, said another way: Keeping the current nickname is the wrong thing to do.
Think of it like the statue of Lee in Richmond. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called for its removal June 4, and though a judge since has granted a temporary injunction that has kept the monument in place, it’s clear where this is headed. Lee fought for the South, which was fighting for slavery. How can a city feel welcoming for all races if that’s whom it actively chooses to honor?
“That statue has been there for a long time,” Northam said that day. “It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. So we’re taking it down.”
Why? Let Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D), an African American, explain.
“Removing these statues will allow the healing process to begin for so many Black Richmonders and Virginians,” Stoney said in a news release. “Richmond is no longer the Capital of the Confederacy — it is filled with diversity and love for all — and we need to demonstrate that.”
Apply that thinking not to a civic monument or, in Fort Bragg’s case, to a military institution. The NFL took a major step this month when Commissioner Roger Goodell — finally, mercifully — apologized for not listening to the league’s players when it came to matters of systemic racism and police brutality against African Americans. No, none of the 32 teams has signed Colin Kaepernick — yet — and the apology could have been replaced by an honest conversation four years ago. But why double down on a wrong rather than make it right, even if you’re late in doing so?
That’s how Snyder should be thinking. In any 21st-century environment, furthering stereotypes based on skin color seems ludicrous. Somehow, it seems more ludicrous given the understanding we’re trying to have right now, particularly of people who don’t look like us. This is a moment when Snyder, rather than seeming forced into a move he has long resisted, could show some level of introspection and empathy.
But if not empathy, what about pragmatism? Snyder grew up rooting for his favorite team at RFK Stadium. It is, in so many ways, the perfect site for the team Snyder bought — but not with the name. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said last week, in an interview with the Team 980, “It’s past time for the team to deal with what offends so many people.”
What might get Snyder’s attention: The RFK site for a new stadium won’t happen for a team named the Redskins.
“It’s an obstacle for us locally, but it’s also an obstacle for the federal government who leases us the land,” Bowser said.
At a time like this, it would be nice if the motivation wasn’t a business decision but rather a real understanding of why the name can be hurtful. It would be nice if Snyder and those around him began to understand that race is fraught in this country, and they could be part of the solution, even in a small way, rather than part of the problem.
But how, in these times, do you raise kids in the nation’s capital, ask them to look at the pain and the strife racial injustice has caused in their hometown and their home country, walk them through steps they can take to make things better, and then have them Hail to the Redskins on Sundays? It’s so incongruent it makes your head hurt.
Snyder can’t change the name in 1999, when he bought the team, or in 2013, when he told USA Today he would “NEVER — you can use caps” change the name. But he can change it now. It never has been clearer: He must. For what it says about how we view each other. For what it says about our times. For what it would say about our future, a future in which we listen, learn and try to understand rather than dig in and defy for the sake of defiance.