The Redskins Need a New Name

The NFL season is still more than a month away, but here in football-crazed Washington, the Redskins already dominate the sports pages. And with that kind of coverage staring me in the face every morning, I can’t help thinking anew about the team’s controversial name—specifically, whether its continued use constitutes unethical behavior.

This is hardly a new issue. Protests over names like the Redskins are at least 50 years old, and since the 1970s hundreds of amateur and professional teams have discarded various Indian nicknames after concluding they were derogatory. Others, though, have rebelled against what they see as extreme political correctness. The Washington Redskins are perhaps the most prominent to insist on keeping the name, even under pressure from President Obama, half the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which recently canceled the Redskin trademark on the grounds that it was derogatory.

Redskin owner Dan Snider insists no insult is intended, cites the long tradition behind the name, and notes that changing it would be expensive and would alienate a large number of fans. (In a Washington Post poll taken a year ago, two-thirds said there was no need to change the name.) Emotions run high on both sides, and important principles, including freedom of speech and the right to make a profit, are involved.

The issues, especially the economics, get complicated quickly. But the ethics seem rather clear cut.

Consider the five principles that Bruce Weinstein, better known to some as The Ethics Guy, lists in his book Ethical Intelligence:

Do No Harm
Make Things Better
Respect Others
Be Fair

The Washington Redskin name fails all of these tests. What is undeniable is that a lot of Native Americans find the name offensive, derogatory, and disrespectful. Consider the roots of the word. The term dates back to the 17th century when it was used to describe the way Native Americans painted their faces, but the American Oxford Dictionary notes that Redskin “lost its neutral, accurate descriptive sense and became a term of disparagement.” It remains a term of insult for many Native Americans and clearly harms them much more than changing the name would harm the fans who cite tradition. So the term clearly isn’t respectful, doesn’t make anything better, isn’t fair, and doesn’t show caring by those who insist on using it. And if you don’t like Weinstein’s five principles, just apply the golden rule. Pick a demeaning nickname for whatever ethnic group you belong to and ask yourself how you’d feel to see it on the front page of the sports section every day.

While Snyder can legitimately claim that changing the name will harm him financially, that may be short term. Fans who favor the name aren’t likely to desert the team if it’s changed. The school and professional teams that changed similar names seem to have emerged just fine if that’s any indication. I still remember the controversy in 1994 when the Washington Wizards shed their old name, the Bullets, out of sensitivity to a city with more than its share of gun violence. The change undoubtedly cost owner Abe Pollen in the short term, but he did it because it was the right thing to do. Snyder should follow his example and the fans should just get over it.


10 thoughts on “The Redskins Need a New Name

  1. Great argument, and absolutely agreed. The people who stand to be insulted by the name are the ones who get to decide if it’s offensive, and they have spoken overwhelmingly and clearly. To insist on using the name for something as trivial by comparison as a “sports heritage” is selfish. The team will retain its character and history no matter what it’s called. Time for people to grow up.

  2. My daughter bought me a Redskins jacket three years ago but I can no longer wear it. I feel like I am making a statement when I do. You would think the controversy would interfere with sales of Redskins gear, but who knows?

  3. @Mike, Dan Snyder is a marketing guy first and is totally motivated by money. That’s exactly why he won’t change the name. He understands the Redskins are a very popular brand with a deep and loyal fan base. It would be foolish and very costly to change the brand. Remember how successful New Coke was?

    @Mark, I have to disagree on the name change because somebody is always going to be offended by something. Some folks also don’t like the cartoon Indian patch on the Cleveland Indians uniform, the tomahawk chop used by Braves fans and at FSU, Even the Chicago Blackhawks emblem at center ice is taking heat. Just because a small percentage of people are offended doesn’t make it required that you need to fix it to remain ethical. The Redskins name should stay; the controversy is simply political correctness run amok.

    FWIW, I was against the Bullets changing their name as well. They lost me as a fan when they did because I could no longer identify with my team and I’m sure glad nobody in DC is getting shot now. Just keeping it real – good discussion topic, though. Thanks,


    • Brian, New Coke failed because they changed the taste, not because they changed the name, and the fact that other teams use offensive symbols or names doesn’t justify it here. And it’s more than a few people who are offended. The term is clearly derogatory and the team clings to it out of greed. Some 600 high school, college, and professional teams have moved away from Indian names, and their fans were overwhelmingly sensible enough to understand and accept it.

  4. I think it is morally wrong to take offense when none was given. It is an imaginary harm. And there are quite enough real harms in the world that need to be fixed. The football team is clearly enhancing the name, using it for inspiration, which is quite the opposite of being derogatory.

    People took offense when blacks sat beside them at the lunch counter. But no offense was given. The only harm was in the taking offense.

    Same with the term Redskins and the Indian logo. It creates an imaginary harm to take offense where none was ever given or intended.

    • I think you’re blaming the victim for the crime. If you know a certain action is offensive to another person (in this case, many people) and you continue to take that action, then you become responsible for offending the person or persons.

      • So you’re saying it was wrong for the black student to sit beside the white person at the lunch counter because the white person feels offended? And you’re saying it would be wrong for a gay person to complain about being fired because the Christians employees there are offended?

        Our native Americans certainly have a lot to complain about. But our Washington Redskins have only worked to bring glory and honor upon the name.

  5. Marvin, you know that’s not what I’m saying. Only if the black man sat down and called the white man a derogatory name–and repeated it in cheers, logos, franchising, etc.—would it be comparable.

    • And you know I’m not talking about what the black man did or did not do, but whether the white person can validly take offense when none is given and no insult is intended.

      I think it is wrong for people to take offense unnecessarily.
      1. It does harm.
      2. It makes things worse.
      3. It causes disrespect of the “offending” party.
      4. It is unfair to the person who intended no insult.
      5. It demonstrates a caring for oneself in a way that cares not for others.

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