By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
The debate began, for me anyway, in January 1992 when the Washington Redskins faced the Buffalo Bills in Superbowl XXVI. Assuming my memory isn’t failing me, as it’s admittedly doing more frequently these days, I recall a very small group of Native Americans protesting at the game in the freezing cold outside the Minneapolis Metrodome. It was the first time I can recall any sort of opposition to Washington’s professional football team’s use of the nickname “Redskins”. Though they seemed small and insignificant against the enormous backdrop of a Superbowl, they made their point. I, and no doubt thousands of other ‘Skins fans, left Superbowl XXVI with the joys of a third championship and the new knowledge that the term Redskins was, to many Native Americans, a derogatory, racist term.
I don’t pretend to understand all the legal wrangling that’s occurred since that group of Native Americans first filed suit shortly after Superbowl XXVI. To roughly frame the arguments, those opposing the nickname contend that “Redskins” is too offensive a term to warrant trademark protection. Conversely, the team and the NFL maintain, in an attempt to protect their financial interests, the term is meant to praise and honor Native Americans. Over the last 17 years, the legal pendulum has swung back and forth. Recent decisions have favored the team with the courts taking a legal out, if you will, by ruling the plaintiffs waited too long to file suit (the Redskins name has been in existence since 1933). While the news in the courtroom has been good for the NFL, it has done nothing to resolve the issue in the court of public opinion. In fact, by ruling in the team’s favor based on nothing more than the latency of the suit, the courts have indirectly acknowledged that, under a common man’s approach to determining right and wrong, the outcome might be different.
Without question, it’s a complex issue. I won’t even begin to muddy the waters with what is going on in other cities and with other teams. One could go on and on about whether “Redskins” is more offensive than 60,000 Atlanta Braves fans chanting and chopping with foam tomahawks. To simplify things, we can all certainly agree that our language contains words that were acceptable in 1933 but are now recognized as hateful terms. Further, we all can acknowledge that our country, as great as it is, has stains in its history; none of which are so glaring as how we’ve treated our fellow man. Slavery is rightly recognized as America’s greatest sin. Another sad episode is the systematic removal and displacement, via the Trail of Tears, of the continent’s Native inhabitants, all in the name of the country’s European settlers’ pursuit of a perceived manifest destiny. It was a destiny realized in part through slave labor and at the great expense of Native people. That should not be forgotten or diminished in any way. So if a group of Native Americans, no matter how small, contends we are doing just that through something as insignificant as the nickname of a football team, then they deserve our attention.
Absent a Supreme Court ruling, the final answer may only come when someone in the majority decides to rise above what is legally permitted and do what is morally right. The recent court rulings, by not ruling anything, have indirectly validated the basic claim that “Redskins” is a derogatory term and have pointed the finger of responsibility back at the team and the NFL. The seeds of much of our country’s notable social change and racial sensitivity were planted when an offended minority steadfastly trumpeting its cause. The actual change though often came only after the offending majority thought beyond itself and considered the world through the lens of the offended minority. In this case, as an admitted ‘Skins fans and, as you can tell from my mug shot, a pasty Caucasian, I’m firmly within the majority. For what it’s worth, I think it’s time for a name change. It just feels like the right thing to do.
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