Sports teams should consider meaning behind names

Everyone has weighed in at this point: Redskins or just Washington?

Those in the sports world (and even those outside of it) aren’t unfamiliar to controversy regarding team names and what they represent — just look at Chief Illiniwek over the past decade.

In 1968, the National Congress of American Indians suggested that the Washington, D.C.-based football team’s use of “Redskins,” a racial descriptor for Native Americans, in its team name is offensive.

Fans and non-fans alike are participating in the lengthy back-and-forth debates regarding the Washington Redskins’ nickname. Even President Barack Obama suggested earlier this month that if he were the team’s owner, he’d consider changing the nickname.

And so the conversation is once again thrust back into the spotlight.

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder vehemently opposed the notion that the current nickname is offensive. To justify his point, he cites various polls as well as testimony from Native Americans that don’t find the name offensive.

But what about the Native Americans that do find it offensive?

Well, if the term is, in fact, offensive, then we should also shy away from using any term that would specifically and negatively refer to those of Asian, Hispanic or African-American descent, especially in regards to sports teams that are widely known.

Unfortunately, the Washington Redskins controversy highlights the idea that we certainly have not moved past racial identification of groups of people. And it’s perpetuated by our general ignorance of the offense, particularly toward Native Americans.

We see representations of Native Americans in popular media, such as in “Pocahontas,” based on a fictional account of the Native American’s encounters with English settlers. Or through accounts of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the Americas and his first-hand confrontations with Native Americans.

We often glorify these folklore as if they are accurate representations of Native Americans.

We associate real people with fictional accounts of their experiences. And that’s part of where our ignorance arises.

And these images still permeate throughout American culture today. There doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.

Even prominent sportscaster Bob Costas added his two cents — in the middle of a Sunday night game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, during which he said the term “Redskins” is undoubtedly a slur and an insult.

Other news organizations and sports columnists have protested the nickname, opting to use “Washington” instead while referring to the team. Politicians have pushed back as well; earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House to void the use of the Redskins trademark.

But in the end, all these efforts are futile, unless Snyder and the fan base realize it’s time to move on.

This isn’t much different from other Native American symbols and trademarks in sports, most notably the former Chief Illiniwek mascot at the University and the Chicago Blackhawks’ name.

After Obama criticized the ownership publicly in early October, a team lawyer went on radio and asked: Why aren’t the Blackhawks being questioned? It has been, but it’s not as loud as the questions about the Redskins.

Chicago has eluded much of the national attention during a time when many other pro sports teams have moved to more politically correct images and mascots. Even after the NCAA declared a ban on the use of Chief Illiniwek as the official University symbol, the pro- and anti-Chief debates are still very much alive today.

However, hope is rising that the Washington Redskins will make the right choice and will serve as an example to other sports teams and organizations using potentially offensive names.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell also remains optimistic: “I’m confident (Snyder’s) listening. I’m confident he feels strongly about the name but also wants to do the right thing.”

If Snyder’s intentions were all about doing the right thing, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.