For several years now, there has been a growing consensus among the well-bred, well-educated class that sports franchises should not adorn themselves with certain ethnic names or nicknames. On the one hand, it is a movement with a fairly wide scope: as well as the currently faddish pressure on the Washington Redskins, teams like Syracuse – previously the Orangemen, allegedly referring to Scottish and Irish Protestant Unionist colors – have found it advisable to switch to a neutral name, in Syracuse’s case simply “Orange”. (I had always assumed that “Orangemen” referred to New York’s Dutch history, but I have since been told otherwise.)
On the other hand, plenty of teams exist with ethnic names or nicknames and are under no pressure to change: Vandals (University of Idaho), Vikings (Minnesota NFL franchise), Trojans (University of Southern California), Irish (University of Notre Dame) – as well as assorted Saxons, Highlanders, Samurai, Rebels, Musketeers, Crusaders, and what have you at high schools all over the United States.
There is clearly no generally accepted rule that applies to all ethnic names. This is not to say there is no consensus, no guiding principle; but it is a little vague and hard to articulate. Roughly, it can be stated like this: in a culture predominantly formed by European Protestant principles and dominated by European-descended persons, the trappings of those other cultures which have been marginalized by that conquest should not be used for light and transient purposes. In terms less academic, this means that many people find it awkward, if not outright wrong, that African- and American-descended populations are still sometimes mistreated, viewed with suspicion, and not included in the general culture, but other people are perfectly happy to benefit from the aura of their names. So stated, this is a reasonable position to take in the abstract; however, in practical applications it proves difficult.
One of the main reasons is that in practical application, it is rare to hear the case made this exactly. It is much more common to hear the Washington Redskins – or other organization – denounced as “racist”; the audience is expected to believe the accusation and draw the obvious conclusion, obvious because racism is accepted as evil. The difficulty is that the accusation is not accurate. “Racism” is defined as, “1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character of ability and that a particular race is superior to others. 2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.” (American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1997; other dictionaries offer similar definitions.) It should be evident to everyone that a sports franchise is not intentionally given a nickname intended to belittle. These names are usually intended to imply strength, power, success, victory, fearsomeness: Kings, Lions, Jets, Falcons, Thrashers, and so on; or based in some regional or team trivia: Packers, Red Sox, Blues.
Another case often made is that certain names – right now “Redskins” is the one under fire – are inherently racist, in that they are not terms one would use in modern polite conversations. This is frankly silly, as context is almost as important as words themselves to politeness: the NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples – is under no pressure to change its name. Obviously, it is accepted that the NAACP is not insulting the people it is trying to help even if accepted stylings have changed. “Yankee” was an insult at various points – not to mention certain places, where it still can be – but this does not appear to bother anyone in New York.
I am more and more convinced that minority populations not completely successfully integrated into modern American society are often seen by elite critics as a “them”. The Trojans lost; the Viking raids are long gone by; the Highlanders are our (much-glorified) ancestors; at any rate they are, to these critics, in some way “us” and so not even noticed. But the mostly white United States was engaged in war and forced resettlement with Sioux and “braves” and the rest a mere hundred or so years ago, and the resulting cultural decline and mismanaged reservations and who knows what all else are still with us. The critics see this, and recognize the faults in the situation, but do not fully own it as a problem affecting themselves; it is a mistreatment, a victimization, of “them”. They are a “them” whom we have mistreated and so have no right to their history. This is an improvement over seeing such persons as a “them” to be driven off or exploited, but still flawed.
Put like this, it’s a careful position; but it seems to me curious that the public anger and outrage is directed at Dan Snyder’s team name, and not at, say, Congress for mismanaging the situation which makes the team’s name so awkward. Not that we need another reason to be upset with Congress; but I think such critics forget that the discrimination and mistreatment is due to actual, and sometimes continuing, policies, some of which are even our modern own. It is not merely a situation caused – let alone maintained – by some villainous character from history who can be safely blamed and then forgotten or burnt in real or text effigy. I am not well versed in these affairs; but what little I know is uncomfortable to say the least. I wonder what would happen if the effort spent on digging up the uncomplimentary origins and uses of the name “Redskin” were spent researching current conditions on reservations in Oklahoma. Such efforts would be better directed toward correcting abuses and achieving actual unity, rather than pressuring someone into changing a name which some people find impolite because of the actual disunity. In short, the offense taken at the Redskins’ name seems to me mainly a symptom, not a cause.
None of this, though, answers the question of whether Snyder should change the team’s name. Were it my team, I might change the name, for the reasons outlined above. On the other hand, it is not clear to me that it is truly necessary; all such a change seems likely to do is to rid the critics of one niggling reminder that there are problems to be dealt with. If those problems were dealt with; if the political and social tensions were resolved, would the nickname settle comfortably in with the Vikings and Cowboys of the world? Or would the resulting cultural assimilation bring us to a point where all but the most reactionary – not that NFL owners cannot be reactionary, but work with me here – would have a social consensus that would make maintenance of the name all but impossible? I suspect the first scenario is more likely, the second is perfectly plausible; but I object to people trying to claim moral grounds for claims based mainly in modern sensitivities, and to pressure brought on trumped-up grounds.