THE BLOG
09/19/2013 07:44 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

Rick Reilly's No Good, Very Bad Defense of the Washington Football Team's Nickname

Rick Reilly is being widely skewered for an article he wrote yesterday at ESPN.com about the controversy surrounding the nickname of Washington's NFL Franchise.

To recap quickly, Reilly's main lines of defense are:

1) It's become expected that one must attack the nickname, and "every other sports writer in America" is forswearing it.

2) At least some Native Americans, including Reilly's father-in-law and some high school teams representing predominantly Native American school districts, have embraced what Robert Lipsyte calls the "R-word." (Reilly also cites a poll of Native Americans on the issue. More on that below).

3) This fact pattern, according to Reilly, means that it's white America calling for the elimination of the name, not Native Americans.

I think there's a worthwhile discussion to be had about the extent to which the name offends Native Americans. But the general principle -- that the sensibilities of the affected group should be paramount in these discussions -- is clearly appropriate. Dave Zirin, in a rip-roaring attack on Reilly, rightly criticizes Reilly for ignoring all of the activism by Native American groups themselves to oppose Native American mascots. Professor Ellen Staurowsky has noted that:

More than 100 organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association, Native American Journalists Association, the Society of Indian Psychologists, and the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, have supported the discontinuation of these images on the grounds that they encourage stereotyping that negatively impacts the health and well-being of American Indians in schools and workplaces.

So, Reilly's attempt to position himself as some stalwart truth-teller defending the right of Native Americans to call themselves what they want is the kind faux "courage" that one expects to find among the Rush Limbaughs of the world. Furthermore, as Zirin points out, only three "mainstream" sports writers -- Peter King, Christine Brennan and Bill Simmons -- have decided to disavow the name. It is true that others are joining in, including Slate, Mother Jones, the Kansas City Star and Zirin himself, who has developed a significant platform. But this is very far from Reilly's preposterous assertion that "every other sportswriter" has decided to eschew the R word.

Though there has been sustained and growing activism among Native American groups to drop use of Native American imagery and mascots by sports teams, there does not seem to be a consensus among Native Americans more generally about the issue. Paul Woody, writing earlier this year in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, interviewed three tribal leaders in Virginia who informed him that they were not bothered by the Washington team's nickname and neither were most of their tribal members. This is noting like a representative sample, but it's where Woody is writing and it also happens to be close to ground zero for the team's fan base. Woody, incidentally, says he would prefer the name be dropped.

As noted, Reilly cites a poll, conducted a decade ago by the National Annenberg Survey, that asked specifically about Washington's team name: "As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or does it not bother you?" Ninety percent said they were not offended.
It's only one poll and, as this post demonstrates, it's flawed (HT: bobbybigwheel). Furthermore, one presumes that the result would be different today, as much more attention has been devoted to the issue in recent years and as generational sensibilities change (the leaders that Woody asked were all 55 and older). In any event, whether a majority would now say they find the name offensive is far from clear. This is not necessarily the only criterion to use in determining how the issue should be dealt with. But it seems relevant, though it should also be clear that the fact that not every Native American finds it offensive doesn't invalidate the intensity of feeling and legitimate sense of grievance among those who do.

Reilly would have been on firmer ground had he a) done a little more research and b) suggested that a lack of consensus among Native Americans is at least germane to a discussion of whether Washington should change its nickname. Slate's David Plotz, in explaining that publication's decision to stop printing the name, argued that its history is somewhat more ambiguous and less offensive than is sometimes acknowledged.

However, Plotz wrote:

But time passes, the world changes, and all of a sudden a well-intentioned symbol is an embarrassment. Here's a quick thought experiment: Would any team, naming itself today, choose "Redskins" or adopt the team's Indian-head logo? Of course it wouldn't. At the time the team was named, America was barely a generation past the Indian Wars, and at the beginning of the golden age of the Western. American Indians were powerful symbolically, but had a limited role in American public life. The 80 years since have witnessed the triumph of the civil rights movement and a powerful effort by American Indians to reclaim their identity and win self-determination. Americans think differently about race and the language of race than we did 80 years ago.

For Reilly, this appears to be a lamentable state of affairs. That times have changed, and what was acceptable in 1933 isn't necessarily okay in 2013 seems to be, for Reilly, nothing but white guilt and a distasteful imposition of political correctness (and it leads Reilly to an especially regrettable reference, in his final sentence, to reservations). But since an overwhelming majority of fans (including, one may confidently presume, white fans) do, in fact, support the nickname and the number of writers and publications who have decided no longer to use it remains negligible, Reilly's column comes across as an especially delusional and unself-aware exercise in misplaced moral valor.

(Check out my blog about ESPN.)