So here’s a twist: Native Americans appear far less concerned about the Redskins team name than Washingtonians.
That fact might not make the controversy disappear, because for 50 years, nothing has. Native American leaders have been fighting against the name of Washington’s NFL franchise for more than half its existence, through lulls and frenzies, in climates conservative and liberal. A new Washington Post poll suggesting that the vast majority of Native Americans are not bothered by the team name likely won’t end that campaign.
But maybe this poll can at least prompt a realization that the issue is more complicated than partisans on either side would have you believe. If you speak in subtleties on this question, you’ll be accused of giving cover to racists, of endorsing suffocating political correctness or both. The responses of actual Native Americans ought to temper such accusations — and put the focus on issues of greater concern than the name of a sports franchise.
That 90 percent of Native Americans say the team name does not bother them, and that only 21 percent feel the word “Redskin” is disrespectful toward Native Americans, should give pause to name opponents, whose local ranks appear to be growing. A 2013 Washington Post poll found that 28 percent of D.C.-area residents supported a name change. Do U.S. senators, government trademark judges, D.C. politicians and other Washingtonians really have a better sense of what offends Native Americans than Native Americans themselves?
On the other hand, combine the new poll’s results with U.S. Census data and you’ll find that something like 1.1 million Native Americans think the word “Redskin” is disrespectful to them, even if some of them don’t mind it in a sports context. Put aside all those hypotheticals about bird lovers aghast at the Orioles and small people outraged by the Giants; I find it hard to believe there’s another U.S. sports franchise whose name offends so many of the people it’s supposedly meant to honor. To use the creaky old example: If you invite 10 friends to a dinner party and one leaves in tears, was the night a success?
People on both sides of this debate, though, have rejected any subtleties. How could a school on the nation’s largest reservation still call its teams the Redskins if that term is so obviously offensive? Why do some Native Americans call themselves Redskins fans? Why did so many Native Americans interviewed by The Post argue that the name is harmless and the controversy contrived? These are hard questions for name opponents to dismiss.
On the other hand, was the Redskins’ notoriously racist founder really honoring a non-local minority group through caricatures and costumes during a less tolerant era? And why did the organization’s newfound interest in supporting Native causes only appear after heightened political pressure? In that sense, has the campaign already been a success?
Defenders say there’s nothing wrong with the name, but would a 21st-century expansion franchise ever be called the Redskins? Of course not. In an age when even ethnic-themed Halloween costumes are fraught, no one would select a name dictionaries say is often offensive, a name even some Redskins fans find an embarrassing historical relic.
But historical relics, as we’ve seen, are often moored by powerful bonds. Critics say the franchise would earn a financial windfall if it changed names, a whimsical promise I’ve never understood. Does that mean the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox — whose names are also relics — could re-brand themselves every five years and cash in?
History conveys value, emotionally and financially. Many Redskins (or Yankees) fans would feel a real loss if those brands disappeared and they were instead asked to root for the Washington Warriors or New York Goliaths. Is that silly? Sure, in the same way so much of sports is silly.
Instead of acknowledging any intricacies, though, this debate has plunged into the most 2016 of waters: a red-blue politicization that ignores the opinions of actual stakeholders.
“I don’t think they should change the name,” Donald Trump said, citing the issue as yet more political correctness. “I think ‘Washington’ is the pejorative term, not ‘the Redskins,’ ” Jeb Bush quipped. Hillary Clinton said the name is “insensitive and I think that there’s no reason for it to continue.” President Obama and half the U.S. Senate have called for a name change, with Minority Leader Harry Reid saying the team has “a racist franchise name that denigrates Native Americans.”
A 2014 ESPN poll found that 89 percent of Republicans supported keeping the name, while only 58 percent of Democrats did. The Post’s new poll found similar partisan divisions among Native Americans; 36 percent of Democrats said the word is disrespectful to Native Americans, compared with 16 percent of Republicans and independents. As if we didn’t already have enough things to argue about.
Read about the debate’s history, and you might wonder why we’ve all spent so many hours on an issue that 78 percent of Native Americans now call “not too important” or “not at all important.”
Indeed, figuring out just how many Native Americans oppose the name has been central to the years of legal wrangling over the team’s federal trademarks, which hinged on whether a “substantial composite” of Native Americans found the name disparaging when the trademarks were registered. And it’s been debated for the past dozen years, since a National Annenberg Election Survey found that 90 percent of self-identified Native Americans were not bothered by the team name.
That apparently hasn’t changed. Prominent Native Americans and Native American leadership groups have consistently opposed the name, but they still haven’t convinced their constituents.
One poll, though, is unlikely to sway the partisans, whose past rhetoric will be hard to reverse. What percentage of Native Americans would have to register its non-offense before Redskins critics admit this issue isn’t one of obvious racism? Ninety-five percent? Ninety-eight percent? On the other hand, how many Native Americans would have to say the word is disrespectful before Redskins defenders admit it’s complicated? Two million? Three million? Can all the passion and publicity spent on this issue instead be poured into, say, Native American poverty?
Some Redskins critics will look at this poll and see a team name that hundreds of thousands of Native Americans find offensive and disrespectful. Name defenders, meanwhile, will be emboldened, seeing millions more who don’t mind, who think this issue isn’t important, and who have been ignored by their leaders.
In other words, while the poll provides a twist, the real test will be in how both sides respond to it.