What’s in a Name? The Washington Redskins

This blog is a slight departure from my usual posts as a recent news story has raised some thoughts for me that I wanted to write about.

As a therapist, I’m always interested in human behavior, especially when it comes to inequality. I understand that humans often act irrationally, and I think discrimination is often based on learned thinking which can be overcome with time and education.

So I’ve been following the latest debate on whether the Washington Redskins American football team should change its name. This question has been going on for at least the last 30 years and last week, owner Daniel Snyder, publicly came out and proclaimed: “We’ll never change the name, it’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

What I’m curious about is why, in 2013, we’re even arguing whether the name should be changed.

It seems clear that the Native American population feels strongly that the use of the name Redskins, coupled with the team logo of a red-skinned Indian, is derogatory and offensive (with which I tend to agree). If that’s how the Native American population thinks and feels, surely the organization has a duty to address their concerns and seriously consider changing the team name, or at the very least hold discussions to understand their concerns?

But to hear Daniel Snyder exclaim “NEVER” seems highly insensitive — and offensive.

I understand there’s history in the name Redskins as it’s been used since 1933, but society has moved on since then. Attitudes toward minorities have changed, and we’re more educated and aware of what constitutes discrimination toward people of all creeds and colors.

So why does the owner of one of the most popular NFL franchises seem to have little empathy or understanding of why the name Redskins is offensive to a section of the population? Unfortunately, my guess is it all comes down to money, and we’re talking big money.

Forbes rates the Washington Redskins as one of the top five sports franchises in the world, worth around $1.6 billion, and my personal guess is Mr. Snyder is worried that a name change will cost him a lot of money in fan recognition around the world.

Interestingly, the Washington Redskins are no stranger in being tardy when it comes to changing with the times. In 1961, the federal government planned to bring a civil suit against the Redskins because they refused to hire black athletes. With the threat of not being able to compete (and make money) with a segregated team, they began hiring black athletes.

Now, 52 years later, they still don’t seem to understand that what they are doing and, more important, what they are saying is offensive to a whole race of people.

It’s not like people can’t change how they think and act towards different races of people, and it’s not as if sports franchises can’t change the team name.

Take the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a Major League Baseball team. In 2008 they changed their name to Tampa Bay Rays. The New Orleans Hornets, a National Basketball Association team (NBA), will be changing their name to New Orleans Pelicans in 2014. And let’s not forget the Washington Bullets (NBA), who changed their name to Washington Wizards in 1997 because of the negative connotation of the word “bullet” in Washington, which had a high murder rate.

People often find it hard to empathize with something unless it affects them personally, and it’s also difficult to understand the intensity of the hurt that’s caused by using certain words for objectifying a race of people unless you’ve experienced being a victim of hate, abuse and discrimination.

To think words are just words is naive. Words are powerful and have a direct influence on how we think, feel and behave. As George Orwell wrote in his outstanding book 1984, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

My hope for the end of this story is that Daniel Snyder will reflect on his comments and realize that even though the name’s important to him and many sports fans, in 2013 it’s not appropriate and it’s time to change.