What’s in a name? (Football edition)

I actually have an opinion on something related to football—other than how many home runs the team should score—and I’m ahead of the curve. It’s astounding.

After several years of grumbling and rumblings from people who hate the name of the Washington region’s professional football team, suddenly there’s a groundswell of opposition from those who buy ink by the barrel. The anti-racism people, Native Americans who take offense, people who see links between the team’s bigoted past and its epithet of a name, folks who can’t stand megalomaniacal owner Dan Snyder (who recently said, “We’ll never change the name …. NEVER—you can use caps”) … all are swept up in a summer wave of media that are refusing to print or say the team name, which ostensibly honors Native Americans.

These media outlets now include Slate, the New Republic, and Mother Jones. In February DCist made its policy official. In October 2012, Washington City Paper started using the results of a reader poll, in which 50 percent favored the substitute name Pigskins, which works on several levels. All these are following in the longtime footsteps of the Kansas City Star, the Oregonian, and—except on first reference in the body of the story—the Seattle Times.

Individual journalists who publicly repudiate the name include Mike Wise, Sally Jenkins, Courtland Milloy, Robert McCartney, and Patrick Pexton of the Washington Post, Erik Brady of USA Today, Tim Graham of the Buffalo News, John Smallwood of the Philadelphia Daily News, ESPN.com’s Gregg Easterbrook, and NBC4’s Jim Vance.

Other notables include Washington football Hall of Famers Art Monk and Darrell Green, current and former DC mayors Vince Gray and Marion Barry, most of the DC Council, 10 members of Congress, former FCC chair Reed Hundt (“XXXSkins”), and Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy.

Granted, most media outlets on the refusal list don’t focus on football, let alone Washington football. The Washington Post, ESPN, and other major media are still going with the official name, and so is the vast majority of fans. But as a student of American social movements, I tell you: The writing is on the wall for this name.

Derek Donovan, Kansas City Star public editor, September 2012: “I find it inconceivable that the NFL still allows such a patently offensive name and mascot to represent the league in 2012…. I see no compelling reason for any publisher to reprint an egregiously offensive term as a casual matter of course.”

Tim Graham, former ESPN.com writer who’s back at the Buffalo News, June 2013: “Beyond the period at the end of this sentence, I intend never to use the word redskin again…. Only one major professional sports team proudly uses a racial smear as a nickname.”

John Smallwood, Philly Daily News, June 2013: “In practical use, the R-Word is no different from calling an African-American the N-Word, a Jewish person the K-Word, a Hispanic the W-Word, an Irish-American the M-Word, or an Italian American a different W-word. All are meant to insult, dehumanize and offend. Using them is a display of hatred. Yet, the R-Word is the only one that we dare celebrate in sports as a profit-making enterprise.”

David Plotz, Slate, August 2013: “Here’s a quick thought experiment: Would any team, naming itself today, choose ‘Redskins’ or adopt the team’s Indian-head logo? Of course it wouldn’t.”

Doug Farrar, Yahoo Sports, October 2012: “So, perhaps it is time for the Redskins to do what a few conscientious editors have already done. Change the name. Not because it’s expedient, and not because of political pressure, but because any team that asks for the trust of the public should hold up a better and more promising legacy.”

Zach Stoloff, New England Sports Network, August 2013: “This is a further sign that Snyder is ultimately losing the public relations battle, and will likely have to change the name sooner or later.”

Words matter. Me, I haven’t used the “R” word in more than four years. Here’s what I use instead among friends: The Insultingly Named, Obnoxiously Hyped Washington NFL Franchise. As an individual, I can’t claim to be part of this growing media groundswell. But I can be proud of being on the right side of history—and proud of those with more to risk who are as well.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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