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.
Do No Harm
Make Things Better
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.