The football version of ‘Cowboys and Indians’
On a recent car ride, my brother and I tried to engage in conversation by calling each other “kike”, you know, to possess a word which is not, in all likelihood, being spoken by anyone anywhere. “Yo,” I may have said, “you’re a low-down, shiftless, ‘skonky’ kike!” It didn’t even work. He got amused by the word ‘shiftless’ and we entered into secondary hysterics. Some slurs, I imagine, will always enrage the object of a name-calling session while other names, to be insulting, depend upon the context. I doubt that a stranger, in any event, could utter the word ‘redskin’ to a Native American without causing offense. Would a white man (a white-skin) walk over to a person of color and greet him as ‘brown-skin’? There are many African Americans who play football for the Washington Redskins. I can’t imagine that any of them would tolerate the word ‘black-skin’ if spoken to them or emblazoned, for example, on a game-day program.
The Washington Bullets basketball team changed its name in 1997, in large part to disconnect itself from the soaring murder rate in the city proper. That’s to be applauded, except that the replacement name, the Washington Wizards, is terrible. It’s not intimidating; it shortens to The Wiz (or The Whiz); and it offers forgettable options for logos, mascots, branding, et cetera. Nobody would suggest that the Redskins franchise should change its name haphazardly, but at the same time, numerous options present themselves. The Bullets might have transformed themselves into the Sea Dogs, a name reputedly mentioned as a finalist for the switch. Who were these Sea Dogs but English pirates who operated in the Caribbean, and by naming a team the Sea Dogs, I doubt that any pirates, seas, or dogs would take offense. It shortens to “dogs” (“Who let the dogs out? Who? Who? Who?”) and fits with other franchise names that refer to marauders.
That said, let’s take a quick look at the 32 current franchise names in the National Football League, broken into four categories:
Animals with Local, National, or General Significance
St. Louis Rams
Lions and Bears mauling each other but not slurring a group of people
Figures from American History, Industry, and Lore
Green Bay Packers
New England Patriots
New Orleans Saints
New York Jets
San Diego Chargers
San Francisco 49ers
Mythological Beings and Marauders from World History
New York Giants
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Native American Imagery
Kansas City Chiefs
I cannot vouch for the wholesomeness of every team name listed here (bears have surely mauled and eaten lots of people, probably even some Native Americans) but on the surface, 30 of these 32 names do not slur an entire group, and the 31st name, the Chiefs, at least conjures leadership as opposed to skin color. It, too, has been the subject of protest from Native American groups. On some level, it defies understanding why the Kansas City and Washington franchises cling to their names, given the many other kinds of names employed (and branded) successfully by other franchises.
In its (bumbling) defense the Washington Redskins leadership cries about the “horrors of rebranding” and the “loss of tradition.” Let me pause to laugh a little bit. In the tenure of the current owner, Daniel Snyder, the team has changed coaches and quarterbacks so often, without much in the way of results, that there is, at present, very little tradition of winning, and frankly, rebranding could be just the thing to generate excitement in the club. At any rate, Snyder earned a lot of his money through direct advertising—so the apparent horrors of rebranding escape me. We’re not talking billions, at any rate. Snyder only has a few of those. No, we’re talking millions, which Snyder has lots of, lots and lots of millions does Mr. Daniel Snyder have, yes.
Simply put: if Daniel Snyder, owner, cannot walk up to a Native American and say, “Hey, how’s it going, redskin?” then the team name Washington Redskins cannot and should not be on TV every week.