It is an issue that has been brought up by many groups and activists for over a decade, and many feel that the National Football League (NFL) has done little more than turn a blind eye and made excuses. With tolerance being the new image that the NFL is trying to put on itself, it is an issue that cannot be ignored any longer. Public opinion is shifting, and the Washington Redskins are being pressured to change their name to put an end to what many are calling the National Football League’s racist ways.
The appeal to change the name of the Washington Redskins received a big boost on Monday, as two U.S. senators sent a letter to the NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, demanding he announce support for a name change. The senators, Maria Cantwell and Bob Cole, also put pressure on the league, by claiming they would “definitely” look at the league’s tax-exempt status. The league, due to some brilliant legal shenanigans, is classified as a “non-profit organization,” and thus receives a tax-exempt status as such. Senator Cantwell, in an interview with the New York Times, said the league is getting tax breaks, but is “embracing and encouraging the use of a racial slur.”
The original meaning of the word “redskin” has been debated since the word became considered controversial. Ives Goddard, a senior linguist at the Smithsonian Institute, argues that the word “redskin” came into being as a way for Native Americans to distinguish themselves from the white invaders on their land. Goddard says the first use of the word “redskin” in print came from an Native American chief trying to negotiate peace, asking “all red skins and white skins” to find an accusation that had been lobbed at him. However, regardless of the origins, the word’s use today is one that most feel can only be perceived as racist; outside of the National Football League, that is.
The Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, has long remained firm in his refusal to change the name of the team. In a letter to the fans, he claims the name is a symbol of “strength, courage, pride and respect,” embodied in the organization and the Native Americans it gets its name from. He argues that because the original Redskins team had four Native American players and a Native American coach, the name is a badge of honor, not a label. This past year has seen him face increasing pressure against that stance. In May, Senator Cole and nine other members of Congress sent letters to Roger Goodell, the 32 team owners in the National Football League and the Fedex company, a sponsor for the Redskins, urging the change in the team’s name. This same group introduced a bill to remove the federal trademark off the Redskin name in March of the same year. Last October, President Obama weighed in on the controversy, saying that he would “think about changing” the name if he owned the team.
The longer this controversy drags out, the worse the Redskins organization and the NFL look. In today’s society, intolerance is increasingly criticized, not glorified. The NFL has another big test in tolerance coming up, as an upcoming draft pick, Michael Sam, recently revealed that he is homosexual. It is big news for the league, and many people in various organizations have stated Sam’s sexual orientation will not be an issue. The league, however, will find it difficult to pick and choose what issues they want to be tolerant about and which ones they can throw to the side.
The organization was formed in 1932, when it was called the Boston Braves. The name was changed to the Boston Redskins the following year. Change is not always good. Public opinion says that it is time for the name to change yet again. For over 80 years, the league has ignored the offensive nature of the name of one of their teams. It is unlikely to be ignored for much longer. The National Football League may soon find that it must take a stand, or be defined as tolerant of insensitive, even racist ways.
Opinion by Jonathan Gardner