The honor of the Redskins

I suppose it’s fair to say the “controversy” around the name of the Washington Redskins football team is still bubbling – although I believe we can downgrade it from swirling, which is the final stage of controversy before detonation – because team owner Dan Snyder wrote an open letter about it yesterday, quoted by CNN:

“Our franchise has a great history, tradition and legacy representing our proud alumni and literally tens of millions of loyal fans worldwide,” Snyder wrote. “We are proud of our team and the passion of our loyal fans. Our fans sing ‘Hail to the Redskins’ in celebration at every Redskins game. They speak proudly of ‘Redskins Nation’ in honor of a sports team they love.”

Critics have been pressuring the Redskins organization to consider a name change, arguing that the term is an offensive racial slur that causes serious social and mental stress to Native American communities.

But Snyder — born and raised a Redskins fan — has remained resolute in his opposition to a new name.

“When I consider the Washington Redskins name, I think of what it stands for. I think of the Washington Redskins traditions and pride I want to share with my three children, just as my father shared with me — and just as you have shared with your family and friends,” Snyder said.

[…] Snyder says he is listening, but the name is not going away.

“I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name. But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too,” Snyder said, citing several polls conducted in recent years that show that a majority of people do not want the name changed.

“After 81 years, the team name ‘Redskins’ continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come,” Snyder said.

The air probably would have gone out of this story by now if President Obama had not weighed in, saying he would “consider changing the name” if he were the owner, which is not exactly a ringing clarion call of leadership.  (How about just saying, “Yes, I think the name should be changed!” if you really feel that way?)

Snyder seems determined to keep the name, and if people want to go on criticizing him for it, fair enough – that is their prerogative.  But it seems to me that continued portrayals of the name as a racist epithet only do damage to the prestige of those the name was chosen to honor.  It has been observed by team lawyer Lanny Davis that 90 percent of Native Americans don’t find the Redskins’ name offensive, and 80 percent of the general population agrees with them.  In order to generate more support for their position, those who want the name changed must convince this great majority of Native Americans that they’ve been played for fools, and the great majority of Americans are callous accessories to an act of racial slander.  That’s not the kind of argument that will pay tribute to the honor of anyone involved.

This is all about honor.  It seems both illogical, and insulting to American culture, that the name of a sports team should be interpreted as an insult.  Competitive sports is all about fighting spirit, cooperation, and loyalty.  The name of the team is chosen to fill the hearts of players and fans with this spirit, not deflate them.  Nobody names their football team the Losers or the Wimps.

Perhaps the majority support of Native Americans for the Redskins’ name will drop if they have a string of really awful seasons.  (Based on current performance statistics and the logic of Redskins critics, the name of my favorite team is a deadly insult to pirates, but by gum, they won the Super Bowl once upon a time!)

The principle of conveying honor through the selection of a namesake is easily understood outside the world of sports.   The late Senator Robert Byrd did not arrange for half the public buildings in West Virginia to be named after him because he felt bad about himself.  The grade school I attended was named after astronaut Wally Schirra.  He was held in very high regard by those who established the school, and by the student body.

What troubles me most about the Redskins name controversy, and similar debates, is the assumption of bad faith on the part of the American people built into the argument.  How meager an opinion of our honor you must hold, to presume we mean the name of a sports team as a gesture of disrespect… to think we’re sharing some secret racist chuckle every time a sportscaster gives us the latest Redskins score!

According to CNN, Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Nation feels “poll numbers don’t matter as long as anyone is offended by the name.”  That sounds like a formula for cultural neurosis, not pride and honor.  If we’re going to begin imputing the worst possible motives to well-meaning people based on “anyone” being offended, we soon won’t have any common culture left at all.