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Is it an Ethical Issue whether the Washington ‘Redskins’ Change its Name?

Controversy over Name Heats up after Comments by Obama and Costas

Opinions differ whether the term” redskin” is offensive or honors the Indian culture. I tend to believe the former and consider it an ethical issue whether the Washington Redskins should change its name. Last week, the National Congress of American Indians released a report detailing why the Washington Redskins team name has an “ugly and racist legacy.” However, the issue is more complicated because of the difficulty of gauging the true feelings in the Native American Indian community.

The thoughts and beliefs of native people are the basis of the debate over changing the team name. And looking across the breadth of Native America — with 2 million Indians enrolled in 566 federally recognized tribes, plus another 3.2 million who tell the Census they are Indian — it’s difficult to tell how many are opposed to the name.

The controversial issue has come up before and was ratcheted up one notch after the Oneida Indian Nation in upstate New York announced the launch of a campaign to urge the team to change its name. In an advertisement, the statement is made: "We do not deserve to be called redskins. We deserve to be treated as what we are — Americans.” The spots began airing in the D.C. market last Sunday.

A poll commissioned by the Oneida Nation found residents of the Washington, D.C., area would still support the Washington Redskins if the football team agreed to change its name: it would make no difference to 55 percent of respondents; it would make 18 percent more of a fan; and only 25 percent said retiring the Redskins name would make them less of a fan.

The Oneida campaign is just the latest protest this year against the Redskins' name. The online magazine Slate made headlines last month when it stopped using "Redskins" to refer to the franchise, choosing instead to refer to “the Washington NFL team.” Slate isn't alone. Similar sentiments are shared by major news outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Associated Press.

Last week, a day after the NFL said it would meet with the Oneida Indian Nation to discuss the issue, the Washington NFL team owner, owner Dan Snyder, strongly implied that the team would not change its name and defended it as "a badge of honor."

Even President Obama weighed in on the topic. In an interview with The Associated Press, Obama said team names such as the Redskins offend "a sizable group of people." He said that while fans get attached to the names, nostalgia may not be a good enough reason to keep them in place. "I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things."

But, it wasn’t the President of the U.S. that motivated the sports world to dig deep and examine its inner feelings on the matter. Last Sunday night during the Redskins-Cowboys game the well-respected sportscaster, Bob Costas, said:

"Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group. When considered that way, 'Redskins' can’t possibly honor a heritage, or a noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent."

Since the 1970s, more than 600 high school and college teams have dropped Indian nicknames but no professional sports franchise has done so. In addition to the racial slur connotations of some of the names, many team mascots portray a Native American Indian riding around with a tomahawk looking ready to do some scalping.

Costas may have a valid point but for me it’s much more basic. The Golden Rule says we should treat others the way we would like to be treated. I find it hard to believe that other ethnic groups, such as those named by Costas, would be content to be called what is a pejorative term to many people.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 17, 2013