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Redskins go on offensive in defending team name


The controversy regarding the name of the Washington football team continues to get stronger. The efforts of the organization to defend it do, too.

In response to a remark from President Barack Obama that owner Daniel Snyder should think about changing the name “Redskins,” the team has issued a statement not from a P.R. specialist but from a lawyer.

And, possibly, all that that implies.

Issued earlier in the day to NBC News, the team has now issued the statement from attorney Lanny Davis generally. We’ll break it down sentence by sentence.

“As a supporter of President Obama, I am sure the President is not aware that in the highly respected independent Annenberg Institute poll (taken in 2004) with a national sample of Native Americans, 9 out of 10 Native Americans said they were not bothered by the name the ‘Washington Redskins,’” Davis says in the first sentence of the statement.

First of all, what does the first part of that sentence even mean? “Since I support President Obama, I can say with authority that he is ignorant of many things, including an obscure poll from 2004"?

The fact that the poll was taken in 2004 makes it (if my math is correct, and it rarely is) nine years old. A lot can change in nine years. The fact that the controversy isn’t dying but strengthening demonstrates that attitudes can, and do, change over time.

Besides, if only one out of 10 Native Americans continue to be bothered nine years later by the name, it’s hard for the team to be dismissive of criticism, especially when Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it clear that, if only one person is offended, the league should at least listen.

“The President made these comments to the Associated Press, but he was apparently unaware that an April 2013 AP poll showed that 8 out of 10 of all Americans in a national sample don’t think the Washington Redskins’ name should be changed,” Davis says in the second sentence of his statement.

As “gotchas” go, that’s a weak one. The AP connection is merely a way to reiterate the notion that 80 percent currently think the name is fine. Of course, Davis glosses over the fact the percentage who oppose it has doubled in 20 years, from 10 percent to 20 percent. Again, times change.

“The Redskins respect everyone. But like devoted fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks (from President Obama’s hometown), the fans love their team and its name and, like those fans, they do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group,” Davis says in the third sentence of his statement. (I know it’s two sentences. But it’s essentially one.)

OK, now it’s getting good. While it’s not the ideal time to embrace the Cleveland Indians, given this week’s modified homage to Al Jolson from some of their fans, the Redskins’ primary argument in support of the name (i.e., “Look at all the other teams named Redskins!”) seems to be shifting. Instead of justifying a term that when stripped from the name of a football team is in the minds of many clearly offensive, the organization has chosen to broaden the attack against its name to encompass other nicknames that relate to Native Americans.

Here’s the problem with that: “Braves,” “Indians,” and “Blackhawks” are not, when stripped from the name of a team, viewed by many or any (except for Rick Reilly’s father-in-law, who is offended by “Chiefs” but somehow not by “Redskins”) as offensive.

“The name ‘Washington Redskins’ is 80 years old -- its history and legacy and tradition,” Davis says in the fourth sentence of his statement.

Yes, the name is 80 years old. I hadn’t heard that one. (I also was not aware Jerome Bettis is from Detroit.) But just because the name has survived for eight decades doesn’t mean it should survive for eight more.

Think of it is this way. If the name “Redskins” never had been used before by the NFL and the league were expanding, how would the name “Redskins” be received as the possible label for a new team?

“The Redskins’ fans sing ‘Hail to the Redskins’ every Sunday as an expression of honor, not disparagement,” Davis concludes.

That’s like saying, “No offense is intended” before saying something offensive. In situations like this, intent doesn’t matter; people say unintentionally offensive things all the time. The reality is that some Native Americans are offended, and the number seems to be increasing. Also, plenty of non-Native Americans think the word is offensive, and the number seems to be increasing.

The Redskins, Daniel Snyder, Lanny Davis, and those who support the continued use of the name basically think anyone who feels that way should get over it. While that may delay the inevitable, it’s hardly a sustainable approach to a problem that won’t go away until the name “Redskins” does.