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A ‘Skins Fan’s Take On The Embattled Nickname

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Shadows are cast on the background as the Oneida Indian Nation holds a forum to take its case against the Washington Redskins football team to the nation's capital. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images.
Shadows are cast on the background as the Oneida Indian Nation holds a forum to take its case against the Washington Redskins football team to the nation's capital. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Here’s yet another piece on the pro football team in Washington’s controversial nickname. Just what you needed, right? Wait. Don’t look away. This one’s different. It’s personal.

Like many NFL fans, I first became aware of the offensive history of the term “Redskins” when a small group of protesters assembled at the Minneapolis Metrodome for Super Bowl XXVI. The group seemed small and insignificant on a “super-stage,” but the message planted a humble seed of change. In the 21 years since, the issue has rattled around in my mind, pushed and pulled on my preconceptions and eventually moved me to words.

Four years ago, before it was cool to write self-serving or heart-felt articles (one can never be sure of the author’s motivations these days) on the Washington Rrr…Red…ah ’Skins will do for now, I wrote a column for a local Maryland paper arguing that it was time for the professional football team in Washington, D.C. to change its offensive nickname and retire the iconic Native American logo. In the heart of ‘Skins nation I framed my perilous opinion around facts — legal, moral, historical, inconvenient (for some) and ultimately, I think, undeniable.

At the time the ‘Skins were riding a wave of recent legal “victories.”  The courts had maintained the team’s trademark – the financial foundation of the name and logo – by ruling not that the name wasn’t offensive but that the plaintiffs had waited too long to take legal action. Excuse me? I love lawyers. Does that sound like a “win?” It certainly isn’t under any moral code, I surmised. Adopting a common man’s take on the situation, I opined in the piece that language and the meaning of terms evolves: what was considered benign, even respectful, in 1933 (the year the then-Boston and future-Washington franchise adopted the name “Redskins”) may be offensive in 2009 (when the article was published).

I may have brought my high school history teacher to tears by noting the horrible price Native- and African-Americans paid for Europeans’ arrogant assumption of a “Manifest Destiny” in North America – a viral geographical and cultural colonization not dissimilar from what America seeks to eradicate around the globe today. More simplistically, I pointed out (as President Obama recently did) that, considering America’s greatness, its diversity and commitment to social progress, it seemed misplaced and extremely insensitive to continue the exploitation of a culture for something as insignificant as the name of a football team. In the end, my verdict at the time was that a name change was in order, not because it was politically correct or legally required, but because it just felt like the right thing for the majority — those with the vested authority and greater social responsibility — to do.

So here I am in 2013 — two decades after being woken up and four years after penning my penance. I have worn the ‘Skins’ colors for 40 years. I have said, sung and written the “R” word countless times. My various expressions of the embattled nickname were first done without conscious, then – in order – with defiance (90s), discomfort (2000s) and frustration (2010s). When I write about the team now, I use the “R” word in introducing a piece, then default to “’Skins” thereafter. I don’t use the “R” word in conversation. I don’t sing the fight song. My car lacks any visual evidence of my football allegiance and I don’t buy ‘Skins apparel like I used to. I have also refrained from wearing ‘Skins gear in public altogether with one exception: when I attend a single game each year with my very good friend. Even then, though, I opt for a 1945 throwback jersey that is devoid of the “R” word.

More broadly, I cringe when I see thousands of Braves fans “chopping” with foam tomahawks or Kansas City Chiefs fans dressed in dollar store quality Native American garb. I find “Chief Wahoo," the cartoonish logo of Cleveland Indians, to be embarrassing. The faux Native-American chant that is produced predominately by the voices of white people cascading from the bleachers at Doak Campbell Stadium (Florida State) or Turner Field (Atlanta) seems tone deaf to where this issue is ultimately headed. 

Do my actions and changed opinion make me feel better? Yes, in some small way they do. But is that enough? Clearly it’s not. My original written arguments from four years ago have aged well (my opinion) and I am in a decidedly larger group (although still the minority) of ‘Skins fans desiring a name change, but my words and meager actions had no real impact on the one person that matters: ‘Skins owner Dan Snyder. Equipped with his legal victories and with the NFL reticent to encroach upon the business model of a franchise, Snyder’s determination to sustain the team’s nickname and the history associated with it has been unwavering.

Earlier this year, Snyder told USA Today that he would “NEVER” (yes, all caps) change the name. As I was contemplating this article, I received an email from Snyder reiterating his steadfast support of the team name and the franchise’s rich history. Snyder’s misstep is he believes the “R” word is synonymous with the football team and ignores the broader, controversial and yes, derogatory, connotation. Whether his motivations are based on pride or pocket is between Snyder and his conscience; however, having observed and endured the actions of this disconnected owner for over a decade, I feel confident it is more the latter than the former.

In the closing remarks, Snyder’s letter included this message to those fighting for a name change: “I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn.” Time will tell if those words have meaning or if they were just a hollow, obligatory acknowledgment of a pesky opposing minority. For the time being, it seems Snyder is determined to do what he wants to do at the expense of what he, or the franchise, should and eventually will do: change the name.

Will it bother me still to see the team lose its identity and be re-branded with a strange new moniker? Honestly, and primarily because of all the good memories I have of team and times spent following the ‘Skins, it will. But for me, the “R” word has already lost its charm and started to fade.