Cowboys and Indians

Suppose you have just built a brand-new college—private and nondenominational—and are tasked to come up with a name for its various sports clubs.

Would you call them the Chinks?  How about the Spics?  The Kikes?  The Krauts?  The Coons?  The Crackers?

Of course you wouldn’t.  Those are all racial or ethnic slurs of one kind or another.  Some are aggressively hateful while others are merely disrespectful or old-fashioned, but all cause understandable offense to many people and, as monikers for a sports team, would be wholly inappropriate.  (This did not stop an Illinois high school from calling themselves “The Chinks” until 1980.)

Why, then, would anyone call themselves the Redskins?

After all, “redskin” is widely recognized as a crude, derogatory term for Native Americans.  While the word has a complex history and is not as universally radioactive as, say, “nigger” or “gook,” it is unquestionably provocative and politically incorrect and causes real unease within a chunk of the Native American population.

Here in 2013, a professional or collegiate athletic organization would probably not adopt “Redskins” as its official nickname.  It just wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

But of course the wide world of sports did not begin in 2013, and there are many, many Redskins across these United States, including the big-league football club in the nation’s capital city.

The controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins is longstanding—and part of a wider conversation about insensitivity toward Native Americans by other teams in other sports—but it was reinvigorated over the weekend when President Barack Obama chimed in, saying that shelving the name and changing it to something less controversial might be a good idea.

In considering the Redskins question, as well as the broader issue of sports nicknames that are potentially (if not blatantly) insensitive, I would suggest that temporal context is a good place to start.

To wit:  If the name of a sports club is offensive today, how much does it matter whether it was offensive when the team was originally christened?  To what degree can such a name be grandfathered into today’s culture before we are obligated to give it a second look?  Should we evaluate strictly on a case-by-case basis, or ought there to be some overarching principles involved?

The NFL’s Redskins have been so called since 1933, before they even played in Washington.  Should the franchise’s longevity itself count as an argument for keeping the name?

For defenders, this is really all a matter of identity.  Those who decry name-changing are not defending the name itself, but rather the legacy attached to it.  To erase the former is to erase the latter, either of which can be taken as a profound insult.  As with many other things, the power of precedent is a very strong force, indeed.

The trouble is that sometimes “we’ve always done it this way” is not a good enough excuse (do we even need to list examples?), and anyway, what good is a legacy if it’s mired in shame and ignorance?

But this is all merely dealing with the past.  What of our naming practices from this point forward?

At the risk of flippancy, might I hypothesize that the problem of people being offended by team names would go away if we stopped giving teams names that are offensive?

This should not be a terribly laborious job, but apparently it is.  Why is that?

More than anything else, it is because of America’s obsession with toughness and masculinity, and our irritating tendency to conflate the two—a tradition that harks back to the romanticized frontier days of actual cowboys and actual Indians.

It would be very easy to avoid controversies of this sort if we were not so preoccupied with being intimidating and macho, and labeling ourselves accordingly.

What we might do instead is adopt a “Boy Named Sue” attitude toward professional sports.

“A Boy Named Sue” is the poem by Shel Silverstein—later turned into a hit song by Johnny Cash—in which a kid accrues toughness and self-confidence as a direct consequence of having a decidedly un-masculine first name:  He is forced to prove himself because no one gives him the benefit of the doubt.

In relaxing our penchant for tough-sounding names—particularly those that double as ethnic or cultural bugaboos—we would hardly be running a risk of self-emasculation.

In my hometown of Boston, for example, our pro baseball club is named after knitted footwear.  However, the name “Red Sox” does not terribly bother us, for we are far too distracted by how well the team plays baseball.

Nothing clears up a messy squabble quite like winning.