Our subject for today: Braves, Indians, Chiefs . . . and Redskins.
As you may know, football season is just now getting under way. In Washington, they've been awaiting it with more than a little anticipation. The town's beloved Redskins got a new owner during the off-season, and he's been busy making changes. He's changed the practice facility, changed the name of the stadium and threatened to change coaches if the team's miserable play continues.
But there's one thing Daniel Snyder says he won't change, despite pressure to do so. Meaning, of course, the name.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Snyder explained that the term Redskins "was taken actually as an honor," though he didn't say by whom. He also said it was "never meant to be derogatory." Which would doubtless come as a surprise to Native-American people, who, generally speaking, find the term nothing but derogatory. My dictionary agrees. "Offensive slang," it warns, ". . . a disparaging term for a Native American." No surprise, then, that native people have been pushing the team for years to call itself something else.
I get the sense most sports fans wish they'd go away, that noisy band of native activists who have been crusading against not just the Redskins, but also Cleveland's Indians, Atlanta's Braves and Kansas City's Chiefs. Sports fans, I think, wish they could just enjoy the game without being pushed to ponder touchy questions of racial insult.
But that's a luxury Native Americans are unlikely to allow them. Nor should they.
In fairness to the Redskins, it might be instructive to recall what the world was like when the team took the name in 1933. Racial and ethnic branding -- often insulting, sometimes not -- were prominent in those years. You could go to the store for a pipe cleaner called "Cannibal," whose logo was a spear-wielding African with a bone through his head. You might watch a basketball game featuring the Buffalo Germans or the New York Hakoahs, an all-Jewish team whose name was a Yiddish term meaning strength. Native Americans were a particularly popular commercial icon -- they were used to sell corn flakes, life insurance, motorcycles, guns, rubber, butter, baking powder and a brand of tires called "Savage."
Though it's less pervasive these days, ethnic branding is hardly a thing of the past. Consider, for example, the Boston Celtics, the "Fighting Irish" of Notre Dame and the Lucky Charms leprechaun. And, yes, you might fairly wonder: If Americans of Irish descent are not up in arms about any of those, why should native people pitch a fit about a handful of sports teams?
The answer is simple: It's easier to laugh when you're in on the joke, and native people are not. See, there's a crucial difference between the Irish and Native Americans. The one was assimilated, the other decimated.
Yes, Irish people, like many other immigrant groups, were treated little better than dogs when they came to this country around the turn of the century. Yet ultimately, they managed to disappear into the mainstream. To become simply American.
Problem is, the mainstream has never welcomed native people, never offered them that opportunity. Instead, it has given them lies, land thievery and death. And those who survive, it has chained to lives of poverty, alcoholism and disease -- their numbers so tiny against the American whole that the rest of us barely hear them when they cry.
Is it any wonder, then, that seeing themselves held up -- or more accurately, reduced -- to the status of commercial mascot stands for many Native Americans as one more belittling insult, one more unbearable attack upon their collective dignity? Or that "Redskin" -- the curse spat by the people who killed their forebears -- would lodge crossways in their throats?
I understand the emotional bond a sports fan has for the team. I understand that names and logos carry mystical weight, that they are a vehicle of continuity and legacy. I also understand that doing the right thing is most important when it's most difficult. And in this case, the right thing could not be clearer: Rename these teams.
That way, everyone can enjoy the game.