Bob Franken: Racism and the R-word
How can it be that among those of good will who normally avoid racial and ethnic slurs, there is such strong opposition to the NFL Washington Redskins changing their name?
This would be people who wouldn’t even consider using the poisonous epithet for blacks, preferring instead to say “N-word” if the subject comes up at all. And yet so many of them, the avid football fans, resist any thought of getting rid of the R-word.
It’s plainly and simply an expression of bigotry, rooted in America’s sorry history of oppressing our original inhabitants. And yet it persists, a divisive term attached to one of the few entities that unites D.C. as crazed fans of all colors and political persuasions go bonkers for the home team.
That probably would not include the Native Americans here whose pleas for a change are drowned out. The only reason the subject came up again is that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian held a symposium on this festering issue. There also is legal action to force a name change that has been rattling around in various courts for nearly two decades.
By the way, no one from the team showed up for the event, which is hardly a surprise since the owner, like all the NFL chiefs (yes that was intentional), is too consumed with making money to reconsider a trademark that is so lucrative, no matter how offensive. Besides they’re too busy now that they have suddenly discovered that the highly marketable violence of their game is so dangerous that they face expensive legal jeopardy.
While they aren’t acting on the controversy over the odious name, other sports entities are. In 2005, the NCAA, which oversees the business of college athletics, banned the use of most Indian imagery and nicknames in the postseason.
Even at the secondary level there has been some sensitivity. The latest example comes from Cooperstown, N.Y., where the local high school has ditched the R-word and is considering “Deerslayers” or other names that would honor James Fenimore Cooper, who was from Cooperstown. Considering that the town is also home to another sport’s Hall of Fame, maybe the football team could call itself the “Baseballs.” It might be a tad confusing, but at least it wouldn’t be racist.
In the past I’ve suggested alternatives to the Washington team, and there are so many possibilities. There are the obvious, like the Senators, to the appropriate, like Lobbyists. My personal favorite is the Gridlocks. Imagine how rousing it would be after a touchdown if the crowd burst into “Hail to the Gridlocks!”
As for the difficulties in replacing the name, that wouldn’t be a first here in D.C. In the late ‘90s, when the homicide rate made Washington a murderous shooting range, the owner of the National Basketball Association team, the Bullets, decided the name was inappropriate and finally settled on the Wizards. At the time, some civil-rights groups objected because the Ku Klux Klan has its Grand Wizard, but just about everyone considered that a huge stretch. To this day, the NBA franchise here is the Wizards, although the current ownership has let it be known that if there was enough public sentiment, they could go back to the Bullets. How unfortunate it would be if they did in this era of mass shootings, but maybe they could sell a loge to the NRA.
The point is that this kind of conversion is doable. In the case of pro football here, it will only come if owner Dan Snyder decides the R-word threatens the bottom line.
Since the fans are so largely against change, a boycott simply won’t happen. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, I am guilty of loving sports and guilty of tolerating a football team with such an intolerant name. Until now.
Bob Franken is a former CNN correspondent. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.