Rick Reilly Mailbag: Sept. 25, 2013

My inbox flowed red this week after my column on the flap over the Washington Redskins name. You’d have thought I shot a boxful of kittens. Or saved a boxful. Some thought I should be fired. Some thought I should be elected. Some called me racist. Some thanked me for honoring a race.

I still don’t know whether “redskin” is a racist term, I just know that on many Native American reservations, they don’t think so. Three reservation high schools I spoke with, in fact, use “Redskins” as their team name and wear it with pride.

This whole Redskins thing is an exposed nerve. It triggers passion on every topic from race relations to political correctness. Everybody and their cabbie seems to want to weigh in on it, sometimes like anvils through bay windows.

I’ve even felt strongly both ways. In 1991, for Sports Illustrated, I wrote that it was time to change the name. But in the 22 years since, I’ve grown to understand that it’s not up to me. It should be an issue decided by Native Americans, not this sudden wave of almost entirely white, politically correct sports writers.

For some of you, if even one person is insulted, that’s enough to dump it. For others, it’s a non-issue that only smokescreens so many real problems Native Americans have. For still others, it’s just further proof that I should bathe in quicksand.

I know one thing, though. The larger the social media tsunami grows, the easier it comes for people to react easily and quickly, the more I notice a backlash against any stance that doesn’t fit the Consensus Opinion. Is that what you want from your sports columnists, someone to simply parrot what the cool kids are saying? Because that will never be me. There’s a word to describe fish that only float with the current: “dead.”

Thank you for standing up for the right of white people to call native Americans “redskins.” I mean, African-Americans call each other the N-word, so why would anyone object if an NBA team called itself the N's? Everyone is just too politically correct. I mean, in the 1930s there was a colorful term for every ethnic group. But there certainly was no prejudice; it was just good clean fun. Thank goodness we have people like Rick Reilly who recognize that since many women seem comfortable with the B-word, no one has any right to consider it offensive. Thank you, Rick Reilly for standing up for the right to call any group any name you want as long as there are some members of the group who don’t mind.

– Eric Schenk (Mill Valley, Calif.)

Well played, sir.

Now why did you have to bring facts into our nice mob mentality over the Redskins moniker? What, we should just put out our torches and go home?

– Jim Trageser (San Marcos, Calif.)

Just because a few groups DON’T find Redskins offensive doesn’t mean we ignore the groups that DO.

– Shawn (Los Angeles)

As someone who is proudly part Choctaw and has actually lived in Wellpinit, Wash., I very much appreciate you giving a forum for the true opinions of natives on this issue. These are names which promote pride within our people, and I thank you again for giving that opinion, the one that should matter, a voice.

– Kyle (Seattle, Wash.)

When I hear Redskins, I think football, NOT American Indians. The meaning of Redskins has changed over the years. It’s just a name, not meant to offend anyone.

– James Zeller (Wylie, Texas)

Thank you for this. My heritage is mainly Iroquois. I grew up in D.C. and have a sister who was a Redskinette for six years. Lifelong Redskins fans and just sick of all the PC BS. Nobody has really bothered to ask a majority of Indians what they think.

– Andrew (Charlotte, N.C.)

Would you feel comfortable going up to someone of Native American descent and asking them, “Hey, are you a redskin?”

– Michael (Tucson, Ariz.)

That’s just the point. “Redskins” is not a word that comes up on reservations, according to the people I interviewed. They only hear it as part of their own schools’ teams or the NFL team in Washington. Most have no idea where it came from. (Linguists disagree.) It only symbolizes their teams and the pride they feel in their school. To take that away just because a few find it offensive? I’m not convinced that’s fair.

This is the Internet. You’re not allowed to write well constructed pieces that promote a reasonable point of view. Don’t you know anything?

– Bryan (Houston)

I am a member of the Tuscarora Nation and currently studying at Dartmouth College. Our Native Community is very diverse in that some students that have grown up on a reservation (like me) and others that have not even stepped foot on one. And most of the time, it is the group that have not known their reservation that becomes the vocal majority and makes decisions regarding whether something is offensive to us. I believe that a very large majority of American Indians that live on their reservation do not care about the Redskins’ name. Others that are not so involved in their reservation have been influenced by a sort-of white-man mentality that it is their duty to do what they think is best for “their” people -- even though they have not been raised or been involved in their reservation.

– Aaron Gilbert (Hanover, N.H.)

You do realize that in arguing that “we” (whites?) shouldn’t make father-knows-best decisions on behalf of all Native Americans, and leave "Redskins" alone, you’re kind of speaking on behalf of all Native Americans?

– Matt (Tuckahoe, N.Y.)

Read the piece again. Nowhere in it did I say don’t change the name. Nowhere did I say “leave Redskins alone.” I’d be all for changing the name if the majority of Native Americans believed it was a slur. So far, that’s not true.

This is exactly what I was thinking of writing. Thank you, Rick Reilly, for beating me to it. Couldn’t agree more. As someone who grew up at RFK Stadium, not one time have Redskins fans disrespected American Indians. They do not tomahawk chop like Atlanta Braves fans. They do not sing a war chant like Kansas City Chiefs fans or Florida State Seminole fans. Their mascot is not the Cleveland Indians’ cartoonish Chief Wahoo. The Redskins make no mockery of American Indians. Their fans sing only: “Hail To the Redskins.” Their emblem is one of honor. It is, in fact, almost identical to what is on the side of an Indian Head nickel -- which was a collector’s item when I was a boy. … If there are high school teams on Indian reservations that go by the name “Redskins,” then why can’t the team in D.C.?

– Tom Friend (ESPN Magazine, via Facebook)

Your opinion about the name “Redskins” is way off base. Your closing sentence is awful, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself for writing it. You seem to be a fairly sensitive person. What the heck has happened on this issue?

– Jay Kepley (Richmond, Va.)

That final line -- “Kind of like a reservation” -- seems to have either infuriated people or delighted them. A lot of readers said it was insulting to Native Americans. Some said it opened their eyes to a new way to look at the problem. One blogger wrote that it was “a fireable offense.” Oh, please. Largely white media deciding what’s best for Native Americans, putting up verbal borders to “protect” them, as though they can’t stand up for themselves, has a scent of it, which is all I alluded to.

I found the last paragraph of your article the most insightful. By far the majority of anything said about the Redskins is by white men doing their “civic duty” and standing up for the Native Americans. Whether they like it or not. I found it to be a good old boys club of similar thought making themselves the moral authority, all other opinions be damned.

– Ian Hill (Seattle)

(1) How many natives would need to be offended by the name before you thought the name was offensive enough to change? (2) Why is it so important to you that the name remains the same?

– Maggie Lindstrom (Seattle)

2) Not important to me at all. I don’t think I should have a say. Your first question is what’s important to me. Answer: I’d want to see more Native American voices calling for a change before I’m convinced. Now, I only hear a few.

Finally a journalist in a profession of “sheeple.” Glad to see there’s still a man in your profession. PC wuss country we live in, drives me nuts.

– Brad (Odenton Md.)

Your argument that some Natives have accepted the name and made it their own is flawed, because it still does not mean that this name is not offensive. Being a tribal member from the Chippewa Cree tribe in Rocky Boy, I take offense to the name. I have been to a Washington game and that was the last time I will ever set foot on their corporate land. The things I saw at the stadium and surrounding community are extremely demeaning to Native Americans. Having people play “dress up” with replicas of sacred cultural items is insulting and it gives our children a cartoon version of who we are. I know it’s my job to teach my children right from wrong, but for this garbage to be allowed in our country is embarrassing. The people you interviewed are not representatives of all Native Americans, and your presentation of such is one-sided. I hope you don’t ever have to sit down with your child and explain why other people are playing dress up with what your people consider respected aspects of your culture. Then you can tell your child, “Nothing’s wrong, because those people say they’re honoring us.”

Zane Rosette (Rocky Boy, Mont.)

This is the best argument to get rid of the name — all the offending costumery and store-bought face paint and Halloween headdresses that go with it. More than the name itself, the Native Americans I spoke with were most offended by the inconsiderate fan hoopla that rides shotgun with it.

Try dressing up in blackface, put on a grass skirt and a bone through your nose, carry a shield and spear, and tell your African-American friend that you are honoring his African heritage, and let me know how he/she reacts.

– John Frisch (Atlanta)

Back in the '90s when the Twins were playing the Braves in the World Series and groups were protesting the Braves nickname, I was tutoring students on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. I remember approaching a 16-year-old wearing a Redskins jacket and asked him why he was wearing it. His answer: “Because it’s cold.” When I explained the controversy and why he was supposed to be outraged by the nickname, he put me in my place. “What team do you want me to support,” he said, “the Cowboys?”

– Lawrence Baden (St. Louis)

In Oregon, all high schools with any reference to Native Americans must be changed by 2017 or lose state funding. We have so many other issues going on in our state, but our Board of Education listened to a few people who had a problem and made a law. Most all tribes in Oregon are not offended by the local school district having a name like Indians or whatever, but we the people seem to know best.

– Matthew Rubrecht (Portland, Ore.)

I have zero doubt the Redskins will change the name sooner or later. This idea that “It just SOUNDS like an insult,” right or wrong, is not going to go away. And the PC pressure never lets up, it only doubles and re-doubles. The irony is that the Redskins' much-reviled owner, Daniel Snyder, will make millions on the new name, the new logo and the selling of hundreds of thousands of new shirts, hats and license plate holders. Who’s ready to buy a Washington Presidents toilet seat?

As a quick follow up to your story. The University of Utah, nicknamed the “Utes,” has gone to the Ute tribe, asking them if they are insulted by the nickname. The tribe has repeatedly said that they are proud of the school using the name. However, people who are not part of the Ute tribe, and are not Native Americans, are still pushing for a change. Please, people, go find another cause. I understand PETA is looking for helpers.

– Zac S. (Salt Lake City)

I’m afraid you’ve really lost your way. I am a proud Muscogee Creek Native American living in Marin [County], Calif. I am offended by your editorial on the Redskins name. There is no way you can draw a comparison between a team that is 99 percent native -- and likes the Redskin name and probably chose it purposefully -- and a national sports franchise that uses cartoon images of our people to promote their team. It hurts me. Maybe your relatives don’t mind but I do. Every time the Braves do their tomahawk chop I want to throw up. Why can’t we just realize we’ve evolved, we’re more civilized, we recognize now that people of different ethnic backgrounds, sexual preferences, religions, etc., are equal and shouldn’t be discriminated against. It’s just time to put this behind us and rise above it. Just because you can find Natives that don’t mind the name doesn’t make it right. If we went with that theory we wouldn’t have had the civil rights movement, suffrage or gay marriage. Things change and it’s time for this to change too.

– Karen Righthand (San Anselmo, Calif.)

I get that, but why is the pressure only on the Redskins to change? Why not your stomach-turning Braves, the Cleveland Indians, and Florida State Seminoles, whose foam tomahawk chant is purely Hollywood and has no origin in Native culture.

I do not think you can compare the Washington Redskins to high schools that are predominately Native American with the nickname Redskins because in those high schools’ cases, they are the people that their moniker is about, whereas the Washington Redskins were named not by Native Americans, but instead by white people. This also applies to the history of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish nickname. A sportswriter insulted Notre Dame by saying they were nothing but a bunch of Fighting Irish, and then the students of Notre Dame (who were predominately Irish Catholic) adopted the name as a badge of honor. I just think it is a different ballgame when a group of people are using their own ethnic identity as a moniker versus someone else’s.

– Eli Langson (Notre Dame, Ind.)

There is a pro soccer team in Amsterdam -- Ajax -- that began letting itself be known unofficially as “The Jews,” supposedly because many of its fans were Jewish. The nickname caught on. Their fans began tattooing the Star of David on themselves and carrying giant 100-feet-wide banners with the Star of David on them. Predictably, fans of their opponents began baiting them with anti-Semitic chants and signs, and it all got even uglier. Who thought of the name doesn’t matter. What matters is how many Native Americans feel they’re being insulted. A few? Maybe it’s not worth changing. A lot? Get rid of it.

Redskins should keep name, just change mascot to a redskin potato.

– Bill McCan (Davao City, Philippines)

'Skins Get Mashed?

An overlooked point in the debate over the continued use of the name Washington “Redskins” is the fact that many other teams have mascots which are HISTORICAL PEOPLES OF THE PAST. “Vikings” (as in Minnesota Vikings) are Nordic people of centuries ago. In Los Angeles County, we have the “Normans” of Beverly Hills High School, the “Romans” Of Los Angeles High School, and the “Trojans” of USC. There are also the “Celtics” of Boston, the “Fighting Irish” of Notre Dame (which really could be interpreted as offensive if one buys into stereotypes of the Irish), and the “Scots” of Highland Park High School in Texas. As a Jew, I wish the New York Jets would change the letter “t” to “w” so that people would be cheering for the “Jews” for a change!

– Mark Mendlovitz (Beverly Hills, Calif.)

I have NO IDEA if you’re serious.

If there were no teams that had ever been named Indians, Redskins, Seminoles, etc., but many named Cowboys, would the PC crowd today be demanding that every sports league add a Native American team name in the pursuit of equity? I’m just wondering.

John Costacos (Seattle)


I wish this article would get National attention! Redskin fans needed to read something like this and it’s nice to finally have a person in the “media” report the facts instead of creating them. … Well Done!

Victor Corado (Manassas, Va.)

This is either a beautifully carved “insult” or you somehow think ESPN has an office in every city.

Your article was very informative and convincing to this liberal Washingtonian. One question, however: After watching the NFL Redskins play the last two weeks, do they STILL think the name isn’t insulting???

Dan Frisch (Washington)