What’s In A Name?

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Dave Zirin wrote a scathing open letter today to the owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder, taking him to task for his declared resistance to changing the overtly, unambiguous racist name of his NFL team.

Dear Dan Snyder,

History tends to be unkind to those who make bold proclamations against change.1 You have made it crystal clear that you believe there is nothing wrong with the name of our region’s beloved franchise and probably perceive Webster’s dictionary to have some politically correct, liberal agenda when it defines redskin as “usually offensive.” You’ve never commented on its past use in this country as a term of derision, humiliation, and violence. Why bother getting hung up on history? After all, as a wise man once said, that’s why pencils have erasers.

Zirin (Not Just A Game and Race, Power & American Sport) crystallizes the case by laying out the rank hypocrisy employed to defend the brand.  The revisionist history and tortured contortions (the name honors Native American people, the valued sports legacy) that are offered as justifications for keeping the name are revealed by Zirin as weak, disingenuous arguments designed to preserve a legacy founded and steeped in bigotry.

No one has ever heard you speak about the well-known connective DNA between the team name and the man who coined it, original owner George Preston Marshall, who was called the NFL’s “leading bigot” by legendary Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich. You surely know that Marshall was an arch-segregationist and your team was the last in the NFL to integrate. You probably see it as irrelevant to the name that Marshall had a deep affection for the slave South and minstrel shows or that for years he had “Dixie” played before home games.2

marshall_redskins_owner(Star Collection, D.C. Public Library/Washington Post) Washington Redskins owner George Marshall in a publicity photo, 1954)

These same debates have played out time and again in the US as communities struggle to come to grips with the artifacts of our history of racism and white supremacy. The Washington football team’s ownership and defensive fans should recognize that their sentimental attachments cannot take precedence over our nation’s need to confront and address the shameful aspects of our heritage.