Change that name -- you know who you are


The owner of the National Football League franchise in Washington wants to build a new stadium on federal property. And that is a fine idea, says Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, provided the team agrees to change its racially offensive name.

On July 1 Mr. Campbell introduced an amendment to a bill that would authorize the District of Columbia government to lease the stadium site to the team.

The amendment prohibits the stadium to be used by "any person or organization exploiting any racial or ethnic group or using nomenclature that includes a reference to real or alleged physical characteristics of Native Americans or other groups of human beings."

"Simply put," said Mr. Campbell, the team's name "is offensive to Indian people. Whether it is considered offensive by non-Indians is not the issue. It is offensive to us, and open-minded, caring people will readily see why."

Mr. Campbell, a Democrat, is a first-term senator and the only American Indian in Congress. He says he is one of only 10 congressmen in history to acknowledge that they have Indian ancestry.

"I just ask people to try to imagine how they would feel if a sports team used a negative name reflecting a stereotype of their particular ethnic background, and they were forced to hear that offensive reference over and over again just by virtue of living in the community," the senator continues. "I don't think most people would like that."

You will notice that in today's column I have avoided using the name of the NFL franchise in Washington.

That is because the Associated Press Stylebook, the Bible of working journalists, forbids using the word except as the team's name. I even called the editorial offices of the AP Stylebook in New York to be sure.

"When can we use [the team's name] when referring to American Indians?" I asked.

"Never," answered Julie Diamond, an assistant to the stylebook editor.

"There is no time when it might be considered appropriate?"

"No," answered Ms. Diamond. "Never."

So, you will have to turn to the sports pages to see the word [name of the NFL franchise in Washington]; sports reporters apparently do not care whom they insult. Let's just say that the name, adopted by the franchise in 1933, refers to American Indians by the color of their skin. The team was named by then-owner George Preston Marshall, who was frequently accused of racism and whose team was the last in professional football to have a black player. The team now is integrated.

But Jack Kent Cooke, the present owner, has refused to change the team's name. He insists that it was conceived as a tribute to American Indians. He could not be reached yesterday. A spokesman, contacted at the team's training camp in Carlisle, Pa., refused to comment on Senator Campbell's amendment.

"How do you feel about the name?" I asked.

"Sir," replied the person coldly, "it is not my position to say."

"Not even about your own feelings?"

The person on the phone hung up on me -- before I could get his name.

"Indian people have always been offended by that name and by the names of several other sports teams," says Carol Knight, an aide to Senator Campbell. "There are varying degrees of offensiveness but [the team's name] is about the worst. For instance, the Fighting Illini honors the famous Indian chief Illini. Most American Indians do not find that offensive. But when other teams use the cartoon caricatures with the bulbous nose, the feather sticking up and the bright, red skin -- well, Indians do find that offensive."

I have found this issue of names derogatory to American Indians to be a particularly touchy one -- an issue that sparked the most hate mail when I have written about it in the past. Several sports columnists ridicule calls for change. And the owners of teams using Indian mascots adamantly refuse to change.

These owners are outrageously arrogant, and I hope Mr. Campbell's amendment garners widespread support. As of yesterday, the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus had not signaled their support.

They should. In fact, every member of Congress should support this effort.

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