Opinion Columns & Blogs

October 11, 2013

Kathleen Parker: Sports teams shouldn’t have derogatory names

As a fan of tradition, my knee-jerk reaction to the Redskins controversy – should the name be changed out of respect for offended Native Americans? – was, well, knee-jerk.

As a fan of tradition, my knee-jerk reaction to the Redskins controversy – should the name be changed out of respect for offended Native Americans? – was, well, knee-jerk.

As in, good grief, must we change every word to please every offended group?

Moreover, as an alum of Florida State University (Go ’Noles!), whose mascot is the Seminole, I’m accustomed to thinking of the invocation of Native Americans as a compliment. The best athletes and the winningest teams wish nothing more than to display the qualities we associate with Native Americans: fierce, brave and noble.

There’s surely no insult intended by those cheering for Washington’s Redskins. Finally, haven’t we come far enough not to take everything so personally?

Spoken like a true paleface.

My more-considered response is that, yes, we should – under certain circumstances – relinquish beloved tradition to the mature moment. This seems to be the sentiment of President Obama, who recently said that if he were the team owner, he would consider changing the name.

Understandable as it is for fans to resist changing the name of their team, loyalty to a name isn’t really the point. The point is that “redskin,” unlike the Native American-related names of other teams, refers to a physical characteristic. It is implicitly racial and through its usage has been explicitly racist. We needn’t wander far into the maze of other offensive terms, many once considered humorous, that would be instantly unacceptable today.

Out of a respect for my own survival, I’ll skip examples except as they pertain to my own skin. Since much of my kin hails from the land of shamrocks and leprechauns, let’s tweak Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” to reflect a familiar stereotype – the “Drunken Irish.”

We don’t, or shouldn’t, gladly assign derogatory nicknames to identify our public institutions, and that includes teams that represent cities or other swaths of diverse human populations.

Even the “Drunken Irish” is a failed analogue since one is a cultural stereotype and Redskin is strictly racial.

In our discussions of athletic teams, we also might consider that reducing a group of human beings to mascots is demeaning and insulting. Sidekicks acting as gimmicks is dehumanizing, as well as a vivid expression of objectification.

Responding to Obama’s remarks, Redskins attorney Lanny Davis, formerly of the Clinton administration, argued that the president was basing his opinion on incomplete data. He cited an Associated Press-Gfk poll conducted in April showing that 4 of 5 Americans don’t think the Redskins should change their name. He also noted that Obama hasn’t found fault with Chicago’s Blackhawks, who are actually named after a chief, or other team names.

There’s nothing inherently offensive about the name of a tribe or an individual. A racial or cultural identity isn’t necessarily a slur.

This is the way the Seminole Tribe of Florida apparently saw it. When questions arose about the university’s use of the name, Seminole leaders decided to embrace the honor intended and officially sanctioned it. In other words, they “own” it in the metaphorical sense.

As Native Americans consider their next moves, perhaps they should try to buy the Redskins from owner Dan Snyder, who says he’ll never change the name. Then they could change the name themselves – or, even better, own it.

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