When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked about the Redskins’ name during this year’s pre-Super Bowl press conference, his off-the-cuff response was, “I don’t think anybody wants to offend anybody.” With the benefit of time to reflect on a written reply to a recent letter from 10 members of Congress, Goodell was more articulate and detailed. And also surprisingly candid.
Goodell’s letter, a copy of which can be seen here, begins with an explanation of the origins of the label.
“As you may know,” Goodell writes, “the team began as the Boston Braves in 1932, a name that honored the courage and heritage of Native Americans. The following year, the name was changed to the Redskins — in part to avoid confusion with the Boston baseball team of the same name, but also to honor the team’s then-head coach, William ‘Lone Star’ Dietz. Neither in intent nor use was the name ever meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group.”
Goodell then argues that, because the name began with positive intentions, its meaning is “distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context.” And so, he explains, “For the team’s millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America’s most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”
Still, Goodell concedes that the “issues raised with respect to the Washington Redskins name are complex,” and he points out that the NFL “respect[s] that reasonable people may view it differently, particularly over time.”
In our view, it’s a delicate way of acknowledging that, at some point in time, the superficially negative connotations of the term “Redskins” will outweigh the positive (or at least non-negative) intentions. A lot of things that were acceptable in 1932 are no longer deemed appropriate, regardless of original or current intent. At some point in the future, the reasonable minds that see the term as unacceptable likely will outweigh those that don’t.
The fact that the letter wasn’t publicized by the NFL when sent to Congress on June 5 reflects, in our view, a subtle understanding that there’s no good way out of this corn maze. (Or, in this specific context, maize maze.)
The reaction from at least one member of Congress has been loud and pointed. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) took to the floor of the House of Representatives on Tuesday to complain about Goodell’s response.
“Whether good intentioned or not, the ‘R’ word is a racial slur akin to the ‘N’ word among African Americans, or the ‘W’ word among Latin Americans,” Faleomavaega said.
“Goodell has completely missed the point,” Faleomaveaga added. “It is time for the NFL to stop making excuses for itself and fully embrace its so-called commitment to diversity.”
Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) chided Goodell’s response as demonstrating “twisted logic,” and she called it a “statement of absurdity.”
“Goodell’s letter is another attempt to justify a racial slur on behalf of [Redskins owner] Dan Snyder and other NFL owners who appear to be only concerned with earning ever larger profits, even if it means exploiting a racist stereotype of Native Americans,” McCollum said.
“Would Roger Goodell and Dan Snyder actually travel to a Native American community and greet a group of tribal leaders by saying, ‘Hey, what’s up, Redskin?’ I think not. . . . Indian children, families and elders are Americans, and just like all racial, ethnic or religious groups, they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, not as a demeaning caricature or mascot. That shouldn’t be too much to ask of the NFL.”
Of course, Goodell and Snyder also wouldn’t say, “What’s up, Chief?” or “What’s up, Seminole?” or “What’s up, Brave?” Still, those words — Chief, Seminole, Brave — when removed from the context of a team name and regarded in isolation aren’t objectively objectionable. Redskin, when stripped from the football team and regarded as simply a word, carries a distinct know-it-when-you-see-it label of racism.
That’s the simple reality. Fans and defenders tie the name to the team and the team to the name and see nothing problematic about it. Or, for some fans and defenders, they realize that they need to outwardly claim there’s nothing problematic about it.
Goodell’s letter acknowledges in know-it-when-you-see-it fashion that he knows the day will come when the NFL sees the name changed. It may not happen for 50 years or more, but eventually it will happen.
And then, for the next 50 years or more, people who wanted to see the name remain the same will complain that it shouldn’t have changed.
So, basically, get used to this controversy. It’s officially one of the subplots of America’s ultimate reality show, and it could be lingering for longer than the NFL already has existed.