With his letter defending the Washington Redskins' name, Roger Goodell has taken the wrong side in a debate that shouldn't be a debate at all. The continued usage of a racial epithet as an NFL team's name shouldn't be remotely acceptable to the commissioner or to anyone else with common decency.
In response to a letter sent in May by the Congressional Native American Caucus, Goodell wrote a letter defending Washington's continued use of the name. Goodell argued that because the name wasn't originally meant to be offensive, the name's present use remains "distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context."
Goodell's argument is well-meaning but wrong. Words' meanings change over time. The primary point of the caucus's original letter still stands -- if you wouldn't be comfortable naming a professional football team after the N-word, why should Washington's name be any different?
When disparaging some of Jay-Z's fashion choices for the Brooklyn Nets last May, New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick suggested using a racial slur for black people as the team name. Unsurprisingly, that didn't go over too well.
"Why the Brooklyn Nets when they can be the New York N----s?" Mushnick wrote. "The cheerleaders could be the Brooklyn B---hes or Hoes. Team logo? A 9 mm with hollow-tip shell casings strewn beneath."
Readers expressed an almost unanimous outrage over Mushnick's suggestion of using an ethnic slur as a team name paired with an insultingly stereotypical logo. From a marketing standpoint, Mushnick's suggestion wasn't such a bad idea -- a team with an ethnic slur as its name currently ranks as the NFL's third-most valuable franchise according to Forbes.
Of course, from a common decency standpoint, Mushnick's suggestion was asinine at best. The N-word isn't something you can say in polite company in modern-day America, let alone use as the name of a professional franchise. It should be the same for the moniker casually adopted by Washington's professional football team.
Make no mistakes -- it's a racial slur. Any argument against using the N-word is equally applicable to why the term "redskin" should be offensive. The N-word is considered as vile as it is because it carries connotations of the violent, oppressive era of slavery. Native American history since the Mayflower's landing has been one of the bloodiest tales in recent time.
Every November, elementary schools across the country are filled with coloring book pages of Native Americans peacefully coexisting with settlers for the first Thanksgiving. That image is a hokey whitewashing of some of the more heinous atrocities in our history. The history of the United States' treatment of Native Americans is every bit as bloody, vicious and politically charged as the history of slavery in this country.
Trail of Tears. Wounded Knee. Smallpox blankets. Numerous broken treaties. Treatment that borders on crossing into the legal definition of genocide. Plenty of incidents in Native American history are just as unjust and violent as the history of slavery. The only difference is that there are so few Native Americans left -- due largely to the settlers' violence toward them -- that they're easy enough to marginalize and ignore.
At the core of the issue, any argument against changing the Redskins' name requires downplaying the seriousness of what happened to the Native Americans. Washington's professional football franchise is not the only sports team mired in controversy over usage of indigenous names and imagery, but it is certainly the worst.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Florida Seminoles use specific tribal names in what defenders of those names say are an homage to the warriors of those tribes. Similarly, the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Braves use titles to convey the warrior image. The Cleveland Indians do the same, though that team's name is based on Christopher Columbus' mistaken assumption he had landed in India and valid to criticize for not truly representing Native American culture.
Those team names are fair game for debates about whether they're on the right side of the line between honoring a culture and exploitatively stereotyping all Native Americans as warriors. The fact that there even is a line in those discussions places those names miles ahead of Washington's team.
In Washington, D.C., there is no line. Using a term that has come to be accepted as a racial slur isn't even an attempt at honoring Native American culture, and it's time to change that name.
Every time this issue gets brought up, it gets shouted down by complaints of abandoning tradition for the sake of political correctness.
Tough luck. The tradition of calling a team an ethnic slur is one that deserves to be abandoned.
We've abandoned other "traditions" such as slavery, child labor, not letting women vote, and plenty of other ideas that were the norm in society for a while until our culture evolved to the point where we realized they were no longer acceptable.
If Daniel Snyder and Roger Goodell want to honor Native American tradition, they can find a specific tribe to honor with a new name. Or if that's too much of a hassle, they can rename the team something completely unrelated to Native Americans.
They have plenty of options when it comes to picking a new name -- pretty much anything they come up with will be better than sticking with the current status quo of using an ethnic insult as the team's name.