Redskin HelmetCredit: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2012/10/01/hail-to-the-_________/Few cultural icons have the ability to capture the imagination of our youth like professional athletes.  I would rank athletes alongside musicians and actors as the groups that generate modern-day heroes and role models.  Along with this admiration comes the unrealistic expectation that heroes should be held to a higher moral and ethical standard.   

This is not Another Athlete-Scandal Piece

This article is not about the hurt and outrage that a fan feels after hearing that Lance Armstrong has been doping, Tiger Woods has been unfaithful or Kobe Bryant has uttered a homophobic slur.  We (unrightly) feel that we know these people as individuals given their highly polished public personas, and finding out that our loyalties have been betrayed is disheartening.  After all, despite all the Publicists and media spin, these are humans who are just as flawed as everybody else.   Being really good at riding a bike or hitting a golf ball does not reset one’s moral compass. 

Pro Sports Franchises as Moral Ambassadors

What I do want to focus on is the responsibility that Teams have to uphold the best values of their communities.  Franchises have a connection with their fan base that cuts spans all ages, cultures and races.  Scan the crowd at any sporting event and you will see a representative sample of the local community representation from different genders, income levels, religious faiths and countries of origin.  I recognize that on 'game day', things can be said or done 'in the heat of the moment' that later seem regrettable.  However, away from the field, professional sports franchises are no different from any other business.  They have executive teams in charge of sponsorship, tickets, game operations, marketing, financing and human resources.  Decisions made by these executives that have as much impact on the 'brand' as the teams' win-loss record.  

So What's my Point?

There I was on Thanksgiving, watching the NFL's Dallas Cowboys take on the Washington Redskins.  My 7-year-old daughter walked into the living room and asked me who was playing.  Like all parents, I have a heightened sense of moral awareness around my children.  When I tried to answer, the words "the Cowboys and the...um...team from Washington" came out of my mouth.  It dawned on me that in any other context, the term "redskin" would have been a racial slur.  

Our Role Models need to Evolve with the Times

In the past 40 years, many terms that were once commonplace have, thankfully, been left behind.  If you don't believe me, try watching the following clip from "Archie Bunker" and tell me that things have not evolved:

I believe the time has come for the Washington Redskins to step into the 20th century and retire their team name.  When Marquette University changed their team name from the Warriors to the Golden Eagles in 1994, the school's president stated:

We live in a different era than when the Warriors nickname was selected in 1954. The perspective of time has shown us that our actions, intended or not, can offend others. We must not knowingly act in a way that others will believe, based on their experience, to be an attack on their dignity as fellow human beings.

These comments are as relevant today as they were nearly 20 years ago.  Although I originally felt that the "Politically Correct" movement of the 1990's was overdone, I now recognize its impact on breaking down barriers.  Although Redskin fans are not offended by their team name, Native American Groups certainly are.    

Others Feel the Same Way

I am not the first person to feel this way.  

  • Since 2001, the American Counseling Association has formally opposed the use of stereotypical Native American images as sports symbols and mascots.
  • In 2005, the American Psychological Association recommended the immediate retirement of Native American mascots, symbols, images, and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams, and organizations on the grounds that "racism and racial discrimination are attitudes and behavior that are learned and that threaten human development" and resolved to "denounce racism in all its forms, and take proactive steps to prevent the occurrence of intolerant or racist acts."  One such racist act was the 2003 Atlanta Braves "Tomahawk Chop", which can be easily found on YouTube.
  • A 2005 lawsuit tried to attack the trademark registration.  At the heart of the litigation was the argument that:

The continued use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities-especially those who have had little or no contact with Indigenous peoples.  

and

It is the responsibility of educators to set the example and teach the youth of today to respect other ethnic or minority peoples - NOT to exploit or disrespect them by using them as 'mascots' or stereotypical 'images' which perpetuates racism.

The lawsuit failed to prove that the NFL did not have a right to the trademark, but did raise public awareness of the issue. 

A Possible Solution

Unlike the NFL, a number of Highschool and College teams with Native American inspired monikers have either been getting the approval of the local Native Band or changing their name altogether.  In 1996, Miami University bowed to public pressure and changed their team name from Redskin to Redhawk.  This name would allow the NFL franchise to move forward while preserving the most positive aspects of their brand.

I am very interested in hearing your take on this sensitive issue.  Do you feel we should respect the traditions of the past and continue with the name, or have I given you a reason to reexamine your position on this?  Please use the comments box below to tell me where you stand on the Redskin name.