The Daily Show's bit on the meeting of die-hard Redskins fans with Native Americans who oppose the use of the epithet as a football team's name was disappointingly tame. Where were the high emotions, the tears, and the outrage of those poor beleaguered fans who found themselves "ambushed" by those who find the name deeply hurtful and insulting? Where was the woman who called the police on the show, as reported by The Washington Post?
Even so, as I watched, I couldn't help but be amazed at intransigence of the team's fans. Especially knowing that even blood-thirsty ancient Romans showed more sensitivity to naming conventions in similar situations.
Turns out, ancient Romans had no qualms about changing the names of gladiator types if some of their own citizens found the names insulting or demeaning. In other words, guys who disemboweled men for kicks and giggles were more respectful than the clueless "Caesar" (Dan Snyder) of today's Washington football team.
I discovered this surprising Roman "sensitivity" while researching my novel set in a struggling gladiatorial school. There used to be a gladiator-fighter type called "Samnite." Rome defeated Samnium in central Italy in the fourth century BCE. Soon after, Romans mocked the vanquished Samnites by having gladiators dress up like their defeated warriors. The "Samnite" became an official gladiator type. In other words, it became the Washington Redskins of the ancient world -- a deeply offensive, derogatory epithet to a certain portion of the population.
The Romans eventually replaced the Samnite moniker with a more innocuous fighter type/name (secutor or hoplomachus). Why? Because according to an expert on the subject, "it would have been offensive to the Samnites, now allies [and citizens of Rome] to feature them in the arena" in that way.
Let me repeat: ancient Romans dropped the name because it would've been offensive to a portion of their own citizenship.
Generations later, the Romans changed yet another name/type of gladiator -- the Gaul -- because they realized that it too insulted its own Gaulish Roman citizens. They didn't always change the names of gladiator types (they kept the "Thracian" as a fighter type, but that may have had more to do with resentment over a certain Thracian named Spartacus), but when they did, it came out of a sense of respect.
Think about that. The owners of the most savage athletes in the history of the world -- men who gloried in the arterial blood spray of their defeated opponents, men who battled lions and bears, men whose job was to "kill or be killed" -- understood what was at stake when it came to naming conventions that disparaged segments of their own citizenry.
Remember, there was no such thing as political correctness in ancient Rome. The Romans changed the names/types of fighters as a nod of respect to their own citizens.
Two thousands years ago violent, revenge-or-die Romans could see that words matter. Why can't the owners of today's Washington team?
If only Jon Stewart could've somehow arranged to have Redskin fans try to convince a blood-drenched gladiator that names don't matter. Now that would've made for a far more incendiary bit of television.