Sunday, March 4, 2018

Should the Washington Redskins Change Their Name?

A hot ethics topic in NFL football is whether or not the Washington Redskins should change their name in light of numerous requests for doing so from groups such as the National Congress of American Indians and the tribal council of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. For, such groups consider ‘redskins’ to be a racial slur.

Records indicate that the first use of ‘redskins’ came in the mid-18th century, where Native Americans (NA) referred to themselves as ‘redskins’ in response to the frequent use of skin color identification by colonials in calling themselves ‘white’ and their slaves ‘black.’ In 1863, an article in a Minnesota newspaper used the term in a pejorative sense: “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.” In 1898, Webster’s dictionary defines ‘redskin’ as “often contemptuous.” In 1933, the football team’s name was changed to ‘Redskins.’ Similar to the Oxford Dictionary, writes: “In the late 19th and early 20th centuries…use of the term redskin was associated with attitudes of contempt and condescension. By the 1960s, redskin had declined in use; because of heightened cultural sensitivities, it was perceived as offensive.”

The main argument used to support the use of this name relies on opinion polls. The Annenberg Institute 2004 poll and the Washington Post 2016 poll show that 90% of NAs do not perceive the term to be offensive. These have been used by the team owner, Dan Snyder, and the NFL commissioner to defend the name.

However, one problem is with the questions posed. For instance, similar to the Annenberg poll, The Washington Post asked, “As a Native American, do you find that name offensive, or doesn’t it bother you?” Notice that it still could be that NAs understand the name to be morally wrong or racist, but they don’t find it to be offensive or bothersome. The word ‘offensive’ doesn’t necessarily mean morally offensive. Perhaps, NAs maintain a sticks-and-stones-can-break-my-bones-but-words-will-never-harm-me mentality. They are not bothered or, in other words, “offended” by the name as words will never harm them, but they do find it to be morally reprehensible. The question on the survey needs to use terms like ‘morally offensive’ or ‘racist’ when asking about subjects’ attitudes to the name. Without this, there are plausible alternate interpretations of the results, and any strong conclusion drawn from the study will be invalid.

Also, when uncovering someone’s moral viewpoint, to get their real judgment, it is important that subjects have all the relevant facts to the case. This is a standard practice in ethics, where one should have the relevant facts to a situation before making an actual decision on it. For, facts, like for a juror in a trial, can change one’s verdict. As aforementioned, the term, ‘redskins,’ is a dated term that since the 1960’s is not in common use due to its racist connotation. It could be the case that most NAs today are not familiar with its history. A more accurate survey attempting to discover this population’s real moral judgment on the use of this name first should provide an accurate and comprehensive history of the use of this word, such as that it was used as a racist term to promote genocide against NAs, as indicated above. Once one makes sure that subjects know the relevant history of the issue, participants then should answer the question as to whether they find the use of this name to be morally wrong. As this has not been done, the conclusions in the above studies are not justified.

Additionally, a word that is rooted in hatred and genocide should not be used so trivially as the name of a sports team regardless of what most NAs believe on the matter. There are acts like genocide that are so utterly vile that the relevant negative terms during that time associated with it, like ‘redskins,’ should not be used today in the same country for a sports team, proudly marked on fan gear, and uttered in cheers during games of entertainment. The same would hold if a German soccer team wanted to adopt the swastika as their symbol 100 years from now, where most German Jewish people in the future are morally ok with it. It still would be wrong and should not be done.

Finally, the historical context of the intention for giving a team such a name matters. Gilbert claims the team was so named in order to honor NAs in general and some NAs associated with the team. However, in a 1933 Associated Press interview, the then team owner said he changed the name simply to avoid using the city’s baseball team’s name. Given that the name was widely understood to be a derogatory term during this time as noted above, I take it that an underlying intention of the use of the name, as with most instances when a team or university adopts a NA name, is to draw on a negative stereotype of NAs as being something like savages that are wild, fearless, and warriorlike. They are savages in the way bears, lions, and other animals are that occupy the names of other teams. The intention is of using a racial stereotype. Whether one can foresee it or not, such a stereotype is harmful to NAs and also can limit what they’re perceived as being capable of, like being kind and intelligent. Hence, the name should be changed. Just as the intention to do good that unintentionally leads to bad consequences can at times be enough to absolve all blame, when dubbing a team name, the intention to use a racial stereotype that is in fact a racist one, whether one realizes it or not, can be all that is needed to affirm that the name should be changed.

John J. Park

Philosophy Department

Oakland University


  1. John, we spoke about this outside this blog, but do you think a similar thing would apply to a musical group that uses an offensive name? NWA is an example, and the 'N' stands for...well, the N-word. And the group and many people are affected by it. Would a Nashville sports team who wanted to adopt the N-word for their team be running morally afoul of your argument? If so, does the band NWA?

  2. If we wait for a team to change its name, they never will. It is up to us, the concerned public, to choose a new name and logo for the team, to use it in broadcasts, to make and sell jerseys with it, etc.

    The main reason the racist names stick is that there's a psychological investment in sports fan culture. The problem is that that culture is being misidentified as "whiteness" or whatever. What it's actually about is the hobby of collecting named symbols, the same phenomenon as the Pokemon craze. Most fans would be willing to accept a new name and logo if it comes from the designated source.

    The source has so far been the team, because the team holds the capital. But the world is shifting from a capital economy to an attention economy. The team can be displaced as the source of the name and logo by presenting the new ones in sufficiently attention-getting displays.