Apr 012014

Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, recently released a public letter to fans of the team. In response to recent protests over the team’s name, Snyder invokes the longstanding tradition of cheering for the “burgundy and gold,” holding his father’s hand while singing along to the team song at games, and responding as one with thousands of others (the “Redskin nation”) to the excitement of the sport and the sight of the team’s venerable logo.

Snyder argues that the name should not change, as it contains meaningful sentimental value for millions of fans, and it does no harm to anyone. I should also mention that he bolsters his case by citing examples of specific Native Americans and Native American organizations who have stated that they take no offense at the name “Redskins.”

I wonder what the owners of the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves are thinking. After all, if the Washington Redskins are pressured into changing their name, the proverbial foot is in the door and the writing is on the wall. Have you ever seen, on TV, the fans at Atlanta Braves game do the “tomahawk chop” in unison to rally their team? Or the cartoon mascot of the Cleveland Indians, the devilishly grinning warrior “Injun” Chief Wahu?

Once, at a party back in the 1990s, I confronted a Cleveland fan about Chief Wahu and suggested it was demeaning to Native Americans. (This person was wearing an Indians cap with the Chief on it). He responded that Chief Wahu was “a beloved symbol” and a “tradition.” He meant it, very passionately.

Here is what I would say today, both to Dan Snyder and the guy at the party.

First of all, I hear you about tradition. I was a serious sports fan once. There is something transcendent about rooting zealously for a team together with others, something expansive and uplifting about the camaraderie, the community, the powerfully shared experience, the setting aside of differences for the magical duration of the game, the common identity emblemized by a uniform and a name.

But let’s assume, for argument’s sake at least, that there is a critical mass of Native Americans out there who are indeed offended by the tomahawk chop, Chief Wahu, and the Redskins’, Indians’, and Braves’ names. In fact, perhaps even more than offended, maybe even seriously hurt. According to an article entitled “Science of Small Talk” by Sam Sommers that appeared in Pscyhology Today in May 2012, “After reading about mascots (and seeing Chief Wahoo), Native American respondents scored lower on an individual self-esteem questionnaire, as well as a measure of their sense of community worth (i.e., feelings of respect and a sense of value towards Native Americans).”

If you will acknowledge that your team name and/or mascot and/or logo may be problematic for Native Americans—whose culture was, as we all know, decimated by white European colonialism—then you have to ask yourself: Does your right to the unfettered enjoyment of your team’s tradition trump the interests of an historically oppressed ethnic group that feels desecrated and violated by the trumpeting public display of your team’s name/logo/mascot?

You can insist that one has no bearing on the other, that the grand tradition of the team you love has nothing really to do with the sad history of the “Indian wars” and if anyone fails to appreciate that, well, that’s their problem.

And you may have a point. Who can say for certain? The only arbiters are those that reside in the hearts of the Native Americans, the sports fans, and politicians and people like Mr. Snyder, who wield some power. (There may be a Supreme Being who can render ultimate judgment, but that’s another whole epistemological debate.)

But I do not feel it is necessary, or even necessarily desirable, to render judgment on whether a name like the Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians is an innocent expression of a fun and wholesome tradition, or whether it is intrinsically offensive and inappropriate to adopt a symbol of a defeated culture as an emblem or mascot for a sports team.

Much better to simply recognize that changing your team’s name—along with the logo and/or mascot—would extend your tradition, not end it. Like everything else in the world, tradition must evolve. The community of sports fans can be very large-hearted, and (I’m sure) has no desire to exclude any ethnic group. By acknowledging and (at last) honoring the eminently understandable sentiments of Native Americans, you would be extending your community to them, making a statement to the world about your team’s heart and character, and demonstrating that the “nation” of sports fans is, at its core, a good one, a respectful one, one worth celebrating.

A friend of mine, an old Cleveland fan, once mused that her team could possibly change its name from the Indians to simply the Tribe, which is their nickname anyway. I thought that was brilliant. In the same vein, what could the Washington Redskins morph into, keeping some thematic consistency with their history? How about the Atlanta Braves?

Why not ask the fans for ideas?