Professional sports is not a rational undertaking. Fans will pay astronomical ticket prices, build palace-like billion-dollar stadiums for their teams and tattoo on their bodies the names of players who are themselves wholly indifferent to where they are playing. In the U.S., the most extreme example of such extreme behavior can be found around the National Football League, the nation's unofficial religion on Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays and some Saturdays, too.
Just 40 miles to the south, the debate in Washington over the naming of that city's NFL franchise is threatening to reach levels of absurdity and national disgrace. This week's decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the Washington Redskins' trademark registration is not an especially important legal milestone — the team can still sell all the T-shirts and other memorabilia it wants even if the decision is upheld on appeal — but it has brought renewed attention to the complaints of many Native Americans who find the name to be a racial slur.
We don't know for certain the exact moment "redskin" went from an acceptable term in the mainstream — even one that honors Native Americans, as many of the team's supporters believe — to one that is regarded as racist and insulting. But that is irrelevant. There is no shortage of people who are offended by it. The term was likely first coined by white settlers to this continent, not Native Americans, and was used in a derogatory context in the popular culture as long ago as the 19th century. So rest assured, it wasn't exactly an overnight thing.
Admittedly, Baltimoreans have no particular love of this franchise. Besides the natural rivalry befitting cities in close proximity, the Redskins' former owner lobbied against Baltimore's efforts to land an NFL expansion franchise after the Colts left town. (That Orioles owner Peter Angelos played a similar role in stymieing the District of Columbia's attempts to land a professional baseball team is irrelevant to the average Baltimorean.) Besides, it's the home of bureaucrats, Congress and the Internal Revenue Service that we're talking about here.
Nevertheless, we can feel the pain of the average Redskins' fan who has rooted for that name for generations, owns hundreds of dollars worth of gear flaunting it and has only fond memories of all things Redskins. It would be the same if Orioles fans woke up tomorrow to find that name was suddenly regarded as deeply offensive to others. We, like Redskins fans, would protest such views as an absurd intrusion by the PC police. We love the team, we honor its traditions, so how could you be legitimately offended?
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has the disadvantage of having grown up a Redskins fan. He has not only rejected a name change in no uncertain terms but has gone to great lengths to try to put a more positive spin on the circumstances, including recruiting Native American supporters and donating money to tribal causes. He loves the team, its traditions, its history and even its name. But this is not a rational response to the situation.
The writing is on the wall. The protests have gotten louder, the cause against the name is only picking up more supporters — in Congress, among football players (including former Redskins), among media outlets that now refuse to use it and, of course, among Native Americans. We have seen such social change in action before. The longer this is drawn out, the more villainous the team and its ownership will be seen by others. All those decades of pride and tradition on the gridiron, including those three Super Bowl trophies, won't count for diddly in the eyes of the nation who will see the team only as a symbol of racism and greed.
There is only one solution. Mr. Snyder needs to stand up and face the music. He needs to tell fans that while no offense was ever intended, given that so many are deeply offended by the name "Redskins," it's time to move on and retire it. Declare a naming contest, hire a marketing firm or whatever. Professional football teams have changed names for lesser reasons (Oilers to Titans) or retired them (Chicago Tigers circa 1920) numerous times. If Washington can retire "Bullets" from the city's NBA franchise merely because it was seen as too violent, a truly offensive name can be removed from some football jerseys for the good of all.
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