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Name Calling: Unpacking the Proposed Redskins Change

David Grosso, a Washington, D.C. Councilman, plans to submit a resolution calling on the Washington Redskins franchise to change their name to the Washington Redtails. For those who wonder why, if the team were going to choose a name drawn from a movie, they wouldn’t choose a more iconic source, like the "Washington Jedi,” or the “Washington Twilights,” the Redtails was a nickname for the Tuskegee Airmen, which itself was a nickname for the 332nd Fighter and 477th Bombardment groups, the actual path-breaking African-American Army Air Corps units upon which the Cuba Gooding Jr. movie was based.

I am not inclined to judge what some Native Americans should or should not find offensive. However, while I recognize that the meanings and context of words change over time, it is worth pointing out that “Redskin” is not, as some suggest, the Native American equivalent of the n-word.

1. Regardless of the fairly horrific treatment of Native Americans by assorted other Americans, there really is no ethnic or racial descriptive in American English with quite as much venom as the n-word (though plenty of young African Americans are doing their unintended best to neuter the term).

2. Whatever it may have turned into, according to a fascinating study by Smithsonian senior linguist Ives Goddard, “Redskin” was apparently originally a word used by Native Americans to describe themselves, and only much later did it become a word commonly used by whites, much less in a derogatory manner.

And—interesting team trivia here—it seems that the team name was adopted in 1933 to honor their coach at the time, William “Lone Star” Dietz, a Native American who’d played football at Carlisle with Jim Thorpe.

That said, I’m sure that “Redskin” has been used in far less complimentary fashion by no shortage of people, and that many Native Americans hearing the term are neither interested in its origins nor inclined to be generous in their response to its use. Nor should they have to be. But while I have no particular dog in this fight (and if I did, I’d make sure he'd have a non-offensive name), I do have to question Councilman Grosso’s suggestion.

First of all, the Redtails have no particular connection either to football or the Washington, D.C. region. Call us crazy, but sports team names should have some connection to their homes—Packers, Forty-Niners, Patriots, Ravens, Cowboys—those all make sense. And while one might argue that “Redskins” has nothing to do with either Washington or Boston, where they started, at least it has the strength of tradition, which counts for something in my book.

Now, some may claim that the Redtails were American heroes, and deserving of recognition, and no doubt that's true. But I have to say, as a former Screaming Eagle, that if we decide to start honoring the valor of military units by naming sports teams after them, there are some other candidates for recognition that are ahead in line (the Screaming Eagles comes to mind). But of course, the Redtails aren’t being tapped because they were a military unit, but because they were an all-black military unit (did I mention that it was the Screaming Eagles that were called in to enforce the integration order in Little Rock Central High School?). But here’s the thing—if you’re going to make the name-change, make it a good one. And we have to say that replacing one race-based name with another seems both a little outdated and a lot patronizing.

Since there are some people who are offended, and a lot of other people who don’t seem terribly sympathetic to their concerns, I suggest a name change that will satisfy the name's critics, allow the name's supporters to walk a few miles in somebody else's shoes, and most importantly (I assume that this was a factor in the “Redtails” proposal), allow Washington to keep its color scheme. And yes, maybe the Washington Rednecks will lose some fans, and some may be offended by the new logo of an overweight White man sitting on a couch in his front yard, but screw 'em; they weren’t really fans anyway.

image (cc) flickr user dbking

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