As the debate around the Washington Redskins nickname has come to the forefront of the sporting public this year, several sportswriters and magazines have recently taken a stand by boycotting the nickname. Among the prominent sportswriters to no longer use the "Redskins" nickname are Peter King, Bill Simmons, and Christine Brennan. The Washington Post has also recently published an editorial in favor of changing the nickname.
Thursday night Rick Reilly became the first major sports personality in this recent cycle to defend the "Redskins" nickname. He penned a column on ESPN.com, portraying himself as taking a stand against oppressive white sports columnists like Peter King and Christine Brennan (but curiously not his own ESPN.com colleague Bill Simmons) and ended it with a really bad reservation punchline. Reilly is entitled to his opinion, but his column neglects to mention those Native Americans that are offended by the nickname, of which there are plenty to choose from.
As I've reflected on this as a debate and as a news story from this website's perspective, one question keeps bugging me. Why are these calls for change only just now being listened to and debated in a significant way by the mainstream sports media?
Native Americans have been protesting the "Redskins" nickname for decades. In 1992, Native American groups protested at Super Bowl XXVI in Minnesota.
So instead of another column or report on the "Redskins" debate, just take the time to read this excerpt from a 1992 Philadelphia Daily News column by Ray Didinger speaking to Native American groups about their protests in the early 90's. You can see how this story has progressed over the course of 21 years…
"The Washington Redskins have become an institution in the nation's capital and the team's popularity brings the community together."
That is the team's basic position – that the name "Redskins" is a tribute to the Indian people and absolutely no disrespect is intended.
Dozens of protesters who gathered outside RFK Stadium before the last six Washington home games, congregating at the monument to team founder George Preston Marshall, strongly disagree.
Dressed in Native American clothing and singing to the beat of drums, the demonstrators handed out leaflets ("Being Indian is not a role one simply plays") and carried signs ("If I'm a Redskin, Jack Kent Cooke is a honkie.")
Some fans taunted the demonstrators by loudly singing the team's fight song, "Hail to the Redskins," whose lyrics offend many Native Americans (especially the reference to "braves on the warpath.")
"The fact that a football team in the nation's capital could be named the Redskins in this day and age shows how pathetically ignorant this country is," said Teters, a member of the Spokane Indian nation.
"I've had some (fans) tell me the team is honoring the Indian people by using that name. I said there are better ways to honor the Indian people. They could start by listening to what the Indian people have to say. We don't want to be portrayed as mascots and cartoon characters.
"I don't believe the average person intends to be racist. It's just that the schools have done such a poor job of educating people (about Native Americans) that they don't grasp the issue."
The Indian people – 1.8 million in number, according to the latest census – face many problems, including poverty, inadequate housing and a soaring rate of alcoholism and suicide on reservations across the United States.
According to Teters, the first step toward improving the current conditions is for Indian people to be seen in a contemporary light. Perpetuating 19th century stereotypes, such as "braves on the warpath," makes that first step all the more difficult to achieve.
Tim Giago, a Native American publisher of the Lakota Times in Pine Ridge, S.D., wrote: "The sham rituals, such as the wearing of feathers, beating of tom-toms, horrendous attempts at singing Indian songs, the so-called war whoops and painted faces address more than the issue of racism . . . They also are direct attacks on the spirituality of the Indian people."
As you consider this debate yourself, it's worth asking whether we're really listening.