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Redskins Name Change: Smithsonian Museum Panel Says Racist Name Should Go

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Washington Redskins
Washington Redskins

WASHINGTON -- Should the Washington Redskins change their name?

A panel discussion at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, "Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports," addressed the topic on Thursday. The answer, as each panel member disclosed in their opening statement, is a resounding, "yes."

Judge Judith Bartnoff, a panelist and Deputy Presiding Judge at the Civil Division of the D.C. Superior Court, described having a football team in Washington as a reminder to the nation that Washington is a "real place," filled with people who take pride in the area they are from.

But she reminded those in attendance how shocking and disparaging it is to hear "90,000 people screaming a racial slur" in the name of area pride at FedEx Field, the home of the Redskins.

Panelist Erik Brady, a sports reporter for USA Today, described the Redskins' name as the "most egregious of all" sports nicknames that utilize Native American imagery.

Referring to other Native American themed sports nicknames Brady acknowledged that, "the other names in other contexts are not offensive, this one, except when applied to potatoes, always is."

The Washington Redskins name, while staked in tradition dating back to only a few years after the founding of the team in the 1930s, has long been the focus in an effort to rid the world of sports of racist nicknames.

Mike Wise, a sports columnist for the Washington Post and one of the panelists, stated his support for a name change and added his certainty that the name will someday be removed from the sports franchise.

"I don't know what this is going to take, I don't know when it's going to happen, but I believe in my lifetime, that symbol will disappear from this town," he said.

The offensive nickname has come under increased scrutiny recently. A groundswell of support to change the name has built up over the last few months.

After the Redskins' loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the wild card round of the NFL playoffs in January, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) declared that if the team looked to move back into the District, they would have to have a serious discussion about changing the name of the team.

A little over a week later, Congressman Tom Cole (R-Okla.), one of two Native Americans in Congress, stated his support for a name change, citing how the moniker had long overstayed its welcome.

"This is the 21st century. This is the capital of political correctness on the planet. It is very, very, very offensive," he said. "It’s not a term of respect, and it’s needlessly offensive to a large part of our population."

Columnists for local newspapers have called for a name change for quite some time, including Wise and most recently Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney, who proclaimed his support to change the name to Warriors -- a name that Washington Post writers had come up with in January as a possible replacement.

In October 2012, the Washington alternative The Washington City Paper declared that it would no longer refer to the football team as the "Redskins" and would instead refer to them as the "Pigskins."

Still, audience members wondered how they could help force a change.

Wise responded by saying, "I'll write my butt off if you show up in front of the team's facilities and issue a protest the day before training camp begins," and added, "I'll tell you what, that will be on national news."

Others on the panel believed the key was economics. Rev. Graylan Hagler, the President of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice, said that, "the resistance to changing the name really has to do with money." Hagler said that the linchpin for changing the name would be to "stop buying things that carry that logo."

Wise also argued that changing the name "would make the team more money," and that while “all the old Redskins stuff would sell like hotcakes on eBay...everybody wants new stuff.”

Most of the panelists agreed that social factors would also influence the organization to change the name of the team.

Hagler argued that, "we need to make [the term 'Redskins'] culturally unacceptable," comparing a change in social stigma towards the word to the way that racial epithets aimed at African Americans have become socially unacceptable.

Wise added that, "at some point you have to have a social conscience and stand for something."

Wise also argued that Washington Redskins Rookie of the Year quarterback Robert Griffin III would be able to force Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to consider a name change.

"Dan Snyder would only listen to one person. That would be Robert Griffin III."

Of course, as Wise noted, "that's a little too much for a 22-year-old to be asked to be taking on." But he argued that it could still take, "One athlete with the courage and will to say, 'my brother...you marched with my relatives in Selma years ago, it's time that I march with you now,'" in order to force Snyder to change the name.

The name "Warriors" was also floated by members of the audience.

A Native American man from Red Lake, Minn. recalled a high school in his hometown that changed its nickname to the "Warriors" in order to honor Native Americans and voiced his support for the name. He asserted that, "Warriors in our culture means a guy who takes care of his family, teaches his kids, loves his kids, loves his wife...and protects his family against anything that's going to harm them."

The name "Warriors" doesn't seem too far-fetched. In fact, as McCartney pointed out in his column Thursday, the Redskins franchise has filed multiple times, dating back to 2000, for trademark rights to the name "Washington Warriors." While the team was denied rights to the name, it seems like the franchise may be preparing for a future without "Redskins."

Bartnoff also referred the Washington Wizards basketball team as being the precedent in the area for a professional sports franchise to change its name based on social circumstances.

In 1997, Abe Pollin, the late owner of the Wizards, changed the name of the team from the "Bullets" to the "Wizards." In an interview with fans in 2003, Pollin indicated the reasons as to why he changed the name of the team, which included the high rate of gun violence in the city in the "mid to late ‘90s" and the assassination of Pollin's "good friend" and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Dr. Philip J. Deloria, the panel moderator and an Associate Dean at the University of Michigan, concluded the discussion with a few words about change.

"Stuff actually does change...Nothing remains the same and one of the way in which things change is good meaning and committed people end up establishing the conditions for unexpected things to happen," he said.

Think it's time to change the Redskins' name? Tell us what you think the new name should be in the comments.

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