Culbreath: What’s in a name?Written by Matt 'Shaggy' Culbreath | | firstname.lastname@example.org
I was asked on air this week if I thought the Washington Redskins’ name was offensive. The best answer I could come up with was a nonanswer: a 32-year-old white guy isn’t the person to ask that question of. Honestly, it’s the only answer that I can provide.
It’s been a story for the past 20-or-so years: Native American nicknames in sports, and whether or not they should be eliminated. It’s also a story that has had many different outcomes: Florida State and Central Michigan continue to use the nicknames “Seminoles” and “Chippewas” with the full support of the respective tribes. Eastern Michigan and Miami University, meanwhile, retired the “Hurons” and “Redskins” nicknames.
The big ones, however, are the pro sports names: Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves. The Chicago Blackhawks get by on a technicality, as the team’s founder was a member of the 86th Infantry Division, nicknamed the Black Hawk Division. However, the division was nicknamed after Sauk Leader Chief Black Hawk and continues to use Native American imagery in it’s logos.
The story has come back up because, this week, District of Columbia councilman David Grosso announced his intentions to introduce a resolution (nonbinding, of course) to ask that the Washington Redskins drop the name, going so far as to suggest the name “Redtails,” which refers to the Tuskegee Airmen. The Redskins name is also still part of a lawsuit brought to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board back in 2006.
Going back to whether or not I find the name offensive, again, the best answer I can come up with is that it’s not my place to respond. I’ve got Irish/Scottish (not generalizing; it’s an Irish family that moved to Scotland) on one side, and Italian on the other. I can say that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish doesn’t bother me, but the “Fightin’ Micks” could maybe ruffle some feathers. The Boston Celtics don’t bother me, despite their insistence on using a soft “s” sound rather than the “k” sound the word “Celtic” actually has. Ahh, never noticed that, did you?
In honesty, though, the reason why sports talk radio is filled with guys who say “I don’t see what the big deal is” and “I won’t be offended if there was a Fightin’ Whites” is because we haven’t had been boiled down to stereotypes of being “savages” or “scalpers,” and then tried to slap that on a sports team and tell those we’ve generalized they should be honored by it. The reason we don’t feel threatened by the idea of the “Fightin’ Italians” is because at it’s most offensive, you’re dealing with a team generalized by the Godfather, chest hair and couches wrapped in plastic.
(For the record, “I don’t see why we’re talking about this” is code for “Thinking about this makes me feel all icky inside.” See also: Jason Collins.)
You can argue tradition: the Washington Redskins have been around since 1967, and the only teams who’ve changed their names in the modern era have been those who’ve also moved cities. Fair enough point, but there’s also precedent leaning the other way. The Cincinnati Reds were established in 1890, and trace their founding back to 1861. A lot of history, yes? But in 1953, deep into the McCarthy era, the team changed their names to the Redlegs to avoid any possible association with Communism. I’m sure there were fans back then who protested the change, but at that time, the sensibilities of the people were strong enough to force the change. They went back to the Reds name in 1960.
I’m not necessarily arguing that the name has to change. What I am saying is that neither I, Redskins owner Dan Snyder or D.C. councilman David Grosso are in a position to say whether or not it’s offensive. The people whose heritage is being boiled down and co-opted are the ones who get to decide that, and for the most part, they’ve made themselves pretty clear. I do think Grosso made a mistake in suggesting the Redtails nickname: do the members of the Tuskegee Airmen want their nickname attached to a team owned by Snyder, who may be only second to Jeffrey Loria in the halls of Evil Sports Franchise Owners? Did anybody ask them, or are we simply co-opting that too?
Matt “Shaggy” Culbreath is sports director at 1370 WSPD.