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Scott Stinson: Changing the name of Washington's NFL team is low-hanging fruit, but it's also a start

A Washington Redskins football team logo is seen on a shirt at a sporting goods store in Bailey's Crossroads, Virginia, U.S., June 24, 2020.
A Washington Redskins football team logo is seen on a shirt at a sporting goods store in Bailey's Crossroads, Virginia, U.S., June 24, 2020.

In the television series Master of None, there is an episode in which the character played by Aziz Ansari visits an anti-racism organization. One of the employees has a white board by his desk, and at the top of the to-do list it says: Washington Redskins. The guy notes that it has been on the list since 1994, and he’s out of ideas.

Ansari responds: “It seems like it should have been one phone call. ‘Hey, that’s a racial slur. Do you mind changing it?’”

That episode first aired in 2017. And yet it seems like the right phone call may have finally been made.

The National Football League franchise announced on Friday morning that it would undertake a “thorough review” of the team’s nickname, less than a day after FedEx, one of its major corporate sponsors, said it had requested that “the team in Washington” change its name. Dan Snyder, who bought the team more than two decades ago and has always insisted that he would not change the nickname, acknowledged in the statement that this moment in time — the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the subsequent protests against racial injustice in the United States and elsewhere, and a wide acknowledgement that racism remains a societal problem — has prompted the review. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league is “supportive of this important step.”

As much as it is darkly funny to imagine that a thorough review of the nickname is necessary — check a dictionary, fellas — it is still a significant step. And as much as it is plainly obvious that the nickname is offensive and should be scrubbed, it is still a big statue to topple, precisely because Snyder has so far refused to entertain the idea. He has called the nickname a “badge of honour” for Native Americans and infamously told an interviewer in 2013 that he would “NEVER” change it. “You can use caps,” Snyder said. Beyond that, as professional sports considers how to combat racism, how to use the platform of a popular industry in which many of the most famous and successful employees are Black or another visible minority, that Washington nickname is both low-hanging fruit and also the kind of thing that has to first change, if you are going to convince anyone you are serious about changing anything else.

The NFL, which for the moment seems to be a lot more concerned about social issues now than at any point since Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee to protest racial injustice more than four years ago, would have a hard time selling its new, socially-conscious image while one of its teams was named for a racial slur, complete with an image of a Native American with feathers in his hair on its helmets. The cynical view is that the NFL has realized that the mood has shifted so much in the United States in recent weeks that it is now better business to be on the side of Not Racism, and as a cynic I agree with this view, but whatever the motivations, it has belatedly come to the right place. Snyder, as is not surprising to anyone familiar with his record as one of the worst owners in sports, has of course missed the opportunity to make the change as a goodwill exercise, and is instead embarking on his “review” after sponsors complained and the league, presumably, told him it didn’t want to defend the slur any longer.

Perhaps this is the start of a trend. There are myriad ways in which sports can combat racism, beginning with the massive imbalance between a player pool in certain leagues that is predominantly Black and coaching and executive ranks that heavily skew toward white men. The same can also be fairly said about sports media. Just this week, a Danish research firm released a study of soccer commentary in Europe’s big leagues that found two-thirds of praise of players’ intelligence was aimed at those with lighter skin tones. Lighter-skinned players were also more likely to complimented on their work ethic, while darker-skinned players were more likely to be discussed in terms of their speed and power. That’s not the first study of its kind, nor is the issue unique to soccer, as the NHL’s Hockey Diversity Alliance has pointed out since its recent formation. These kinds of biases will take time to overcome, but it’s no wonder that sports can sometimes have a whiteness problem when a billion-dollar franchise has a literal slur for a name and everyone is fine with it rolling off their tongue.

There are, of course, other nicknames worth reconsidering. For ages now, teams like the Chiefs and Braves, the Indians and Eskimos, have at least been able to point to the football team in Washington and say, correctly, that at least their name wasn’t as bad as that. Meanwhile, there are fans in native headdresses, and others wearing Chief Wahoo shirts and still others doing the Tomahawk Chop. That stuff usually gets excused as tradition, which was Snyder’s explanation, too, until Friday.

Once the first statue comes down, we will see how many others remain.

Postmedia News
sstinson@postmedia.com

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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