Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Redskin Problem: What If the Wronged Don’t Care?

True, the Atlanta Braves washed out of baseball’s play-offs, and so their fans’ tomahawk gestures and faux American Indian chants didn’t have much of a chance to inflame the passions of the politically correct. But never fear: the NFL season is in full sway, and thus the Washington Redskins once again are prompting indignant editorials and protests about how the team’s name is offensive to Native Americans. There is one apparent weakness in the critics’ argument, passionate and persistent as it is. Poll after poll has shown that Native Americans either are not offended by the team’s name and logo, or don’t care, thus raising this perplexing ethical question: if the victims of a supposed wrong don’t think it is wrong, is it?

The application of this dilemma to the decades old controversy over ethnic sports team names is especially difficult, because the arguments of the critics are frequently incoherent. How can it be that communities honor such groups as patriots, padres, angels, packers, rangers, and Forty-Niners by naming beloved teams after them, but when they name their teams after ethnic groups it constitutes an insult? And even that isn’t always an insult: Boston, with a strong Irish history, named its basketball team the Celtics out of pride, not antagonism; New York didn’t think it was poking itself in the eye by calling its baseball team the Yankees. Canadians don’t protest the Montreal Canadians, or even the Vancouver Canucks, for heaven’s sake. The fact is that people don’t name their local teams for anything they don’t like or admire in some way. Where’s the insult?

Ethics Scoreboard concludes that with the Indians, the Chiefs, the Black Hawks, the Braves, and similarly named teams, there just isn’t one. The idea that naming a team after a group or people is denigrating to them is in clear defiance of reality, and the fact that Native Americans themselves, by a margin of 8 or 9 to 1 depending on which poll you read, don’t feel insulted themselves should settle the issue.

Except for the Washington Redskins. This team name is different because it was originally a racist slur, and thus there is a legitimate contention that the name is per se objectionable. Redskins historians think they have an answer for this: the name had its origin when the team was based in Boston and called the Braves after Boston’s National League team (now the Atlanta Braves). Both teams played in Braves field, but when the football team decided to move to the more spacious Fenway Park, it was decided that its name had to be altered to reflect its Major League Baseball roommate.

Red Sox, Red Skins, get it?

It’s not a convincing argument. A slur is a slur, and the fact that it was intended as a play on words doesn’t change how it looks or sounds today. But Native Americans aren’t bothered by it. Should we be?

The answer has to be “Yes.” Frequently, the victims of wrongful behavior either ignore or accept it, but the character of the conduct remains unchanged. In America, you cannot sell yourself into slavery, no matter how much you want to or think it’s a swell life, because slavery demeans all of us, and is contrary to basic American principles. You cannot consent to your own murder, and a teacher cannot have a sexual relationship with a14 year old student even if the student is enthusiastic about it. Society must decide what is right and wrong, and wrong does not become right in the special cases where the victim is either apathetic or accepting. With good reason and through over 200 years of sometimes bitter experience, Americans have concluded that democratic ideals are inconsistent with using terms of derision and ridicule to describe ethnic and religious groups, races, genders, and minority groups generally. Having a prominent NFL team defying that consensus by glorifying infamous racial slang that was applied to perhaps our most cruelly treated population (it’s a close competition, to be sure) is simply unacceptable. It’s wrong. If the Redskins, who no longer play in Fenway Park, want to go back to being called the Braves, they will get no arguments from this corner. But the name Redskins has to go, and it isn’t political correctness to say so.

It is common sense.

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