The Media, on the Warpath
The sports columnist for the Washington Post was adamant: Change was in the air, a longstanding injustice was soon to be righted. “The genie is out of the bottle on this issue,” he wrote. “Off in the distance the wheels of change are grinding. You may not be able to hear them yet.” The exquisitely tuned tympanic membrane of the columnist, however, was thrumming like crazy. And this is what the wheels said to him: “It’s only a matter of time,” they grinded, “until ‘Redskins’ is gone.”
He was referring, of course, to the local professional football team and the name it has borne now for 81 years—or 60 years, in the case of the columnist in question. For his prophecy, with its iron logic of historical inevitability, was written in 1992, 21 years ago. And the Redskins still haven’t changed their name—yet. Our columnist, Tony Kornheiser, was unquestionably correct that the Washington NFL team would cease to be the Redskins. After all, science tells us our sun will burn itself out in 12 billion years, give or take a couple billion, by which time the NFL will probably be disbanded (and before the ’skins can win another Superbowl, too, probably). But Kornheiser’s timing was off.
No matter: The same sense of inevitability hovers round the Redskins again this year, as it does from time to time, with an invincible army of several dozen critics once again declaring that the name must, and therefore will, go. The critics, with limitless access to every mainstream media outlet, can go years without once thinking about, mentioning, or taking offense at the name. But when they do get offended, they get offended as a single unit, and they turn on the subject with the fury of a grizzly startled awake from a delicious winter slumber. The claws swiped especially at a man named Dan Snyder, the poor—well, not poor, since he’s worth a billion dollars—the beleaguered owner of the Redskins, who has adamantly refused to change the name.
“Dan Snyder is now the George Wallace of the NFL,” argued Lawrence O’Donnell, a foam-flecked host on MSNBC. George Wallace? The long-dead segregationist governor of Alabama? Sure. Why the hell not? O’Donnell explained: “The inevitable force of history”—aka the grinding wheels of change—“overwhelmed him, pushed him aside.” And now Snyder is next. “The force of history will crush him. And the name of his football team will be changed.” You heard it here first!
No, not first. O’Donnell’s performance was a splendid example of how an argument, no matter how full of holes, can survive the rapids of the mainstream so long as it sufficiently flatters the man who makes the argument. O’Donnell was tipped off to the Wallace-Snyder connection in the way TV people are always tipped off to novel, interesting, lunatic ideas: He read it in the New York Times. Under the museum-quality headline “Redskins’ owner stubbornly clings to wrong side of history,” the Times sportswriter William C. Rhoden briefed readers on Wallace’s pledge of “segregation forever” and compared it to Snyder’s pledge that he would “never change the name” of his football team. And on it went. Suddenly, without so much as a head’s up, sportswriters for the Washington Post, USA Today, and Sports Illustrated and broadcasters for ESPN and NBC and Fox were unanimously erupting: “By his insistence on using a term that offends even one person,” as Rhoden put it, Snyder “contributes to an atmosphere of intolerance and bigotry.” Nobody expected sportswriters to be masters of logic, but who knew they were so good at sanctimony? The campaign achieved its consummation when President Obama publicly offered his opinion. He doesn’t like the name either. Now that’s historical inevitability.
A funny thing about Snyder’s “offense,” though: It was purely vicarious, a sensation experienced almost exclusively by white and black liberals. Very few of the people taking offense seemed to be Native Americans, especially those who haven’t given themselves over to professional activism. Aware of this perception, perhaps, the National Museum of the American Indian convened a public discussion among non-activist Indians to condemn the Redskins’ name. It was stacked with jes’ plain folks: the co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Development, an associate professor of American Indian Studies, a professor of Sports Management, the chairman of the Native American Studies department at Dartmouth, a lecturer in Multicultural Studies at Sonoma State University and another from Humboldt State, a professor of Critical Gender and Race Studies…salt of the earth, these guys. And they all agreed that the name must, and therefore will, go.
For its part, Redskins management produced some Indians of its own, evidently sharing in the critics’ belief that mere membership in a group through an accident of birth confers an unassailable moral authority. The Redskins press office published an interview with the chief of Virginia’s Patawomeck Tribe. “The members of my tribe—the vast majority—don’t find it offensive,” he said. “And to be honest with you, I would be offended if they did change it.” (Everybody wants in on the act!) Another pro-Redskins Indian, with the unlikely name of Dodson, identified himself as a full-blooded Inuit and commandeered talk-show microphones to testify to his and his tribesmen’s lack of offense. His comeuppance was swift. The website Deadspin did some digging and tweeted that Dodson “is not a full-blooded member of any tribe and is in fact one-quarter Aleut, not Inuit.” It also revealed a paternity suit brought against Dodson a few years back. A nice example of public debate in the modern era.
Still, the Redskins did have a few facts on their side. The original team owner, a nasty piece of work called George Preston Marshall, chose the name as a tribute to the team’s then coach, who claimed Indian ancestry. No team would stick with a name it intended to be demeaning, and intention surely counts for something. More than a dozen Indian schools across the country call their teams “Redskins.” The most recent polls show a large majority of Americans approve of the name, and more to the point, the only poll of American Indians on the subject, taken in 2004, showed that 90 percent of them took no offense at the Redskins’ name.
The critics dismissed that figure as irrelevant, naturally, because it didn’t screen respondents with the question, “Are you culturally or socially or politically native?” Such a poll, said one activist, would carry more weight because it would isolate the opinions of Indians who were “politically aware.” The only good Indian is a liberal Indian.
As of this writing, Snyder’s critics have yet to produce a case much beyond their upset feelings, which are themselves, we should understand, the result of their own superior moral sensitivity. Their only argument was Rhoden’s: Any term that offends “even one person” must be ruled out of court—or off the field, in this case. And this really isn’t an argument. A moment’s thought should tell us that such a standard would bring all public discourse to an immediate halt, a victim of the country’s touchiest neurotics. Lacking arguments and facts and dispositive testimony, the critics can only point to history, whose unalterable direction they alone can discern, as Tony Kornheiser did those many years ago. It recalls the case for gay marriage, which went from a nullity to a moral imperative with stunning rapidity and without warning. Such a tactic is little more than poorly disguised bullying, but it’s what our progressives are left with.
And they’re not letting go, for now. Just this week I read a columnist in USA Today who declared: “The Redskins name will change sooner than you think, two or three years, tops.”
You might ask, Sooner than who thinks, kemosabe? But the columnist is right. He has to be. It’s inevitable.