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Just Because It’s Legal Doesn’t Make it Right

My esteemed colleague Eric Lawson wrote a great piece on the recent court ruling dismissing a lawsuit against the Redskins’ team name and trademark. The appeals court ruled in favor of the Redskins organization on the grounds that the plaintiffs “waited too long” to file their lawsuit, essentially allowing Snyder to continue using the logo and team name throughout perpetuity.

Eric’s post provides some history on the origins of the team name, which I won’t regurgitate in too much detail here, but he frames the debate like this: if the genesis of the name and trademark was without intent to cause harm or disrespect, then it should stand.

But by taking us back through history and illuminating the checkered racial past of the Washington football franchise (they were the last team in the league to integrate in 1962, and the idea that the American Indian theme was an homage to Coach Dietz, who supposedly had Native American heritage, has since been considered somewhat spurious), Eric implies that perhaps the intentions of the then owners were not so noble.

Now we all now that the way we talk about race in this country has changed over the years. It doesn’t take a degree in history to know that the American experience hasn’t always been fair to persons of color. Half a century ago prominent newspapers all over the country ran headlines from World War II referring to the Japanese as “Japs,” and perhaps there was a time that it was perfectly acceptable to refer to person of Native American heritage as a Redskin in everyday conversation.

While many polls suggest that Native Americans are not bothered by the term “Redskin,” as supposedly it is a term that some use to describe themselves, the simple fact remains that it is team name whose sole descriptive quality references the color of an ethnic group’s skin. The notion that the Redskin name is not a reference to race but instead a way to honor the courage and bravery of Indian warriors, while sounding honorable, lacks credibility.

I shouldn’t have to give examples of what this would be like for other ethnic groups, but imagine this:

Honoring the Samurai code, a team names itself the “Japs,” complete with a logo depicting a slanted-eyed profile of Japanese guy.

* Honoring Irish immigrants who came to this country, a team names itself the “Micks.” Logo: white guy knocking back a Guinness.

* Honoring people of the Muslim faith who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, a team names itself the “Hajjis.” Logo: dark skinned fella with beard and turban.

The examples above are obviously ridiculous, but that’s the point. A lot of people with Irish roots aren’t offended by the term Mick, but that doesn’t make it an ideal trademark for a football team. The word Hajji was originally a term of honor, but American soldiers in Iraq have made it their own derogatory term for anyone of Middle Eastern descent, despite their specific ethnicity.

The point is, if the Redskins organization truly wants to honor the courage and bravery of the Native American people, there are plenty of names that could do so in a way that doesn’t simply reference the color of a people’s skin. Simply reverting the team name back to its original moniker, The Braves, would easily settle this issue, as there would be no doubt as to the intent or the origins or modern day usage of the term. 100 years ago, 10 years ago, 50 years from now, “brave” means “brave.” And while they’re at it, the team should drop the profile logo and replace it with the Arrowhead logo.

And don’t let anyone fool you that rebranding the Redskins would be an economic nightmare for Snyder. Everybody in sports marketing knows the best way to increase revenue is to change logos and color schemes over the years, so as to encourage fans to buy new gear and jerseys.

And changing uniforms hasn’t been such a bad thing on the playing field, either.

* The Patriots changed their uniforms and became a dynasty.
* The Bucs changed their uniforms and won a Superbowl.
* The Cleveland Browns changed their name and uniforms and won a Superbowl.
* The Oilers changed their uniforms and name and nearly won a Superbowl.

Dan Snyder shouldn’t have to have a court ruling impel him to do the right thing here. Voluntarily changing the logo and team name would send a signal that the team wants to head in a new direction. And a new identity might be the best medicine for a team wallowing in mediocrity.

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3 Responses to “Just Because It’s Legal Doesn’t Make it Right”

  1. Steve in TN says:

    Your comparisons don’t wash. How about the Boston Celtics? How about the “Fighting Irish” with that dopey, drunk looking leprechaun? Both have humorous depictions of Irish, and I’m part Irish, so should I be peeved? I’m not.

    The Redskins have a proud and noble warrior – native to this land – as our logo. Only those stuck in their identity politics seek to change our proud heritage.

  2. Paul says:

    I’m part Irish too and of course I’m not bothered by the Notre Dame mascot. But the mascot would certainly be more controversial if the name of the team were the Notre Dame “Fighting Micks,” or the “Fighting Irish Drunks.”

    But you do make a fantastic point, Steve, which I think supports my central idea. Names like the Boston Celtics and the Fighting Irish are more similar to something like the Washington “Braves” – an homage to the rich cultural heritage without using a slang term that refers solely to the color of someone’s skin, which also might be considered offensive to that racial group.

    The main difference is the fact that white people in this country were never forced to relocate from their homelands and placed into reservations. As a white person it’s easy to say, “Racial slurs about whites don’t bother me,” because we haven’t been discriminated against strictly on account of the color of our skin in this country. Honestly, what white person is offended by the term, “cracker,” or anything else like that? The difference is the history behind these terms and who’s been in power.

    And what if the team sought to honor the fact that the majority of the population in DC is African American? What if the logo had a profile of a black man and the team was called the “Blackskins?” It wouldn’t take a student of political correctness to say that that would be inappropriate.

  3. Jim says:

    Ever see the Cleveland Indians logo ?
    At least the Skin’s logo is what I would call “respectable” and not some cartoonish caricature.

    Plus, the Browns and Oilers moved cities when their names changed. (And there is, once again, another “Browns” team) That’s far different from just changing your name. And I think a simple name change would in no way help this team win a superbowl. It would take more like an owner change.

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