Arguably the biggest social debate in the NFL is the one surrounding the controversy over the Washington Redskins’ name. An old and once dead debate has been brought to the forefront in recent months, thanks to everything from journalists and media networks refusing to refer to the Redskins by their name to even 10 members of congress sending letters to the NFL about the subject.
The controversy is over the fact that the word “Redskin” is traditionally a racial slur used against Native Americans. However, in today’s world, the word is much more commonly associated with the football team than the slur. Words change their meaning over time, largely for cultural reasons. For instance, the word “faggot” has been culturally defined as everything from a slur against women, the elderly, and in today’s English, against homosexuals. And, of course, its original meaning was a bundle of sticks.
Words only mean what society believes they mean. The Redskins’ name has, perhaps inadvertently, largely changed the definition of the word from something negative to something not negative. That’s a good thing. Bringing up this old debate only serves to take us backwards and transform the word back into its original meaning. That needs to stop.
This isn’t to say that the word “Redskin” isn’t still offensive to some people in some contexts and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell played off that by saying that “if one person’s offended, we have to listen.” However, I think his argument is tremendously flawed. For example, consider the case of Robert “Two Eagles” Green, a retired chief of the 1300-member Patawomeck Tribe. He says that, “frankly, the members of my tribe, the vast majority, don’t find it offensive.” In fact, he goes on to say that, “to be honest with you, I would be offended if they DID change it.” And that’s the flaw with catering to everything any person finds offensive. It’s impossible. There is no possible way to cater to both people who find the name offensive and people who would find a name change offensive.
For that reason, it’s important to know how many Native Americans actually find the name offensive. Robert “Two Eagles” Green notes that the vast majority of his 1300-member tribe doesn’t, but it’s important to have a concrete, tangible number behind that. Well, according to an Annenberg Public Policy Center poll, over 90% of Native Americans DO NOT find the name offensive. That’s a pretty powerful number.
ESPN columnist Rick Reilly mentions this statistic in his article about the subject and brings up a bunch of other very good examples. He mentions three High Schools where Native Americans are the majority, including a High School in Arizona whose student body is 99.3% Native Americans, who actually use “Redskins” as their own school mascot. He notes that the vast majority of these students does not find anything offensive about the name and wear it with pride as any High School would. This is because the word simply does not mean what it used to mean. That’s a good thing. Why is anyone trying to change that?
It seems the vast majority of the people who are actually “offended” by the term are media and political types, largely white, who seem to want to get offended on the Native Americans’ behalf, like they can’t possibly know well enough to get offended on their own. I personally find THAT offense. Maybe if I wrote a letter to Roger Goodell, he would have to listen to me. After all, I am one person.