'Redskins' and irrelevance of public opinion

Team owner Daniel Snyder has said he won't change the Redskins' name. Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Got an email last weekend from the Washington Redskins. It was a column from the Orange County Register in which Robert Green, "the recently retired chief of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe in Fredericksburg, Va.," said he had no problem with the Redskins' team name and "would be offended if they did change it." The same column cites a 2004 Annenberg Public Policy poll in which 90 percent of Native Americans said the name didn't bother them.

This happens from time to time. The Redskins, who have made it very clear that they don't want to change their name, send unsolicited emails in support of the name to members of the media. And while I appreciate that the people who send these emails have a job to do, I honestly don't care. Nor do I care about the results of a recent Washington Post poll in which two-thirds of D.C.-area residents said they don't think the team should change its name. Respectfully, I just don't see how the opinion of Robert Green, or Native Americans polled in 2004, or D.C.-area residents polled in 2013 matters at all with regard to whether the name should be changed.

For every Robert Green the proponents of the name can find to back their side, there's another prominent Native American who'll back the side of its opponents. It's like a TV courtroom drama in which the attorneys find "expert witnesses" who'll say what they want them to say on the witness stand. It no longer helps the debate to hear from these folks. We know there are some Native Americans out there who are offended by the name and we know there are some who aren't. Counting them up and using the results to support your side -- whichever side that might be -- is about as insulting as the ugly name itself, and it's not useful. It's been going on for decades, and there's honestly nothing new to report.

As for the opinion of local residents on the issue? I guess it's worth finding out, the way it's worth finding out the public's opinion on anything else that's in the news. But it's still not relevant to the argument, or as a basis for action or inaction. The fact that most people don't think the name should be changed doesn't mean they're right. And if most people did think it should be changed, I promise you that as someone who takes that position I would not be sitting here using such a poll to justify my argument.

On an issue like this, public opinion is just a distraction. The reason the Redskins should change their name has nothing to do with what anyone thinks now, in the second decade of the 21st century. The reason the Redskins should change their name is the same reason they should have changed it decades ago -- the same reason they never should have picked the name in the first place. The word "Redskin" has a well-established history as a racist epithet, and such words have no business being sung and chanted in support of a professional sports team. Simple as that, and it has nothing to do with tradition or fan pride or whether anyone's still offended by the name today. If the word has ever been used to ridicule or belittle human beings on the grounds of race, what's the good reason to keep it alive in a glorifying context? Changing it would harm literally no one. It would be an act with no motive but basic human courtesy.

If a professional sports team wanted to change its name to "Redskins" in this day and age, it couldn't. The outcry would be tremendous. There would be protests. There would be efforts by government officials to prevent it. Public opinion in that hypothetical case would be a powerful preventive force, yet still not as compelling a reason as the fact that the name is mean, and unnecessary.

Personally, I don't like Native American sports-team nicknames in general. There aren't any other ethnic groups whose fellow human beings we feel comfortable using as mascots, and the ridiculous caricatures that have been employed at times in history by franchises such as the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves are and were offensive in their own ways. That's just my feeling. Rubs me the wrong way.

But the key point with "Redskin" is its history as a slur. That's what makes it worth erasing. The fact that it wasn't deemed too ugly in the 1930s doesn't mean we're stuck with it. Few things would be as easy to change, with as little real-life impact, as the name of a sports team. In 1996, Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin changed his NBA team's name to the Wizards because he didn't want to be associated with gun violence. This past year, the New Orleans Hornets changed their name to the Pelicans to honor Louisiana's state bird. It happens, for a wide range of reasons. Life goes on. You can still cheer for the players. Your life is not affected in any meaningful way.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder says he won't do it, which is completely his prerogative as long as he owns the team. He says he's not trying to offend anyone, but I don't think that's something of which anyone's accused him. He didn't name the team, and I don't believe his motivation for keeping the name has anything to do with racism. From Snyder's perspective, the name simply doesn't mean what it meant to those who once used it as a slur. Keeping the name is not, of itself, an act of insensitivity. It's just that changing it would be an admirable gesture of sensitivity and decency toward fellow human beings. Snyder and the Redskins are declining to make that gesture, and they're using public opinion as their justification. Feels like a missed opportunity to me.