The Real Meaning of the “Redskins” Debate

Should Congress care about the name of a professional sports team?

As a general rule, the names of professional sports teams, and their connotations, are of little concern. No one cares that the Chicago White Sox don't wear white socks, or that Utah, where the NBA's Jazz are based, is the last place you'd think of when you think of jazz.

But the Washington Redskins are different. Their name is a big deal. A group of Native Americans is pursuing a suit to strip the name of federal trademark protection. A few publications have stopped using the term in stories about the team.

In May, 10 members of Congress wrote team owner Dan Snyder asking him to find a new name. Snyder, however, says that will "never" happen.

Plenty of commentators have expended plenty of words arguing for and against the idea. If I were Snyder, I'd have replaced "Redskins" a long time ago. But what the team, the NFL, the courts or Congress ought to do is not the only question. Another one is: Why does it matter so much?

The difference of opinion is not a mere matter of habit or upbringing, like "you like tomato, I like tomahto." It's not a matter of taste, like preferring green to purple. It goes to fundamental beliefs and values.

For insights on the subject, I emailed Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, professor at New York University and author of the 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

He has argued that there are several "clusters of moral concerns" that affect how people think about issues. What distinguishes liberals is that they place great value on fairness, liberty and compassion -- to the exclusion of the other factors. Conservatives don't reject the liberal values, says Haidt, but they give equal or more weight to fostering loyalty, upholding authority and respecting the sacred.

How do all these motives color the debate over the Redskins' name? For the most part, Haidt thinks the issue splits Americans along familiar ideological lines.

"The left tends to value compassion particularly highly," he told me, especially when it concerns the victims of oppression. Not surprisingly, liberals perceive the name as a racial slur against Native Americans, one of the most ruthlessly abused groups in American history. The members of Congress said in their letter that the term is "a racial, derogatory slur akin to the 'N' word among African-Americans."

By that reasoning, nothing could justify its use as a team name. Expressions of racism, however familiar or fondly cherished, have no place in society. Non-Indians have no business telling Indians they should accept something they find degrading.

So why do most people prefer to leave it alone? Not because they're all bigots. A poll by The Washington Post found that about four out of five Redskins fans want to keep the name -- and that only 11 percent of Americans support a change. In a country that has twice elected a black president, it's hard to make the case that 89 percent of the population is racially backward.

One reason for the prevailing sentiment is that many Native Americans don't object to the name. The Post reports that the leaders of three Virginia tribes -- the Pamunkey, the Patawomeck and the Rappahannock -- say it doesn't bother them. "About 98 percent of my tribe is Redskins fans, and it doesn't offend them, either," said one.

ESPN's Rick Reilly found high schools with mostly Native American student bodies that call their teams the Redskins. If even Indians disagree about the term, it's easier to justify keeping it.

Haidt says other elements also come into play. "The right tends to value group-loyalty and tradition particularly highly, and to hold symbols of their groups sacred, particularly when those groups are engaged in intergroup conflict," he said.

Traditions count for a lot among conservatives. To abandon a tradition without a very good reason strikes them as disloyal and unprincipled. Among liberals, by contrast, tradition is viewed as something less important, which is often used to excuse the inexcusable -- and sometimes has to give way to evolving standards of morality.

If we all thought it through the way Haidt does, we might have a more generous attitude toward those who disagree with us. It's too easy for either side to work itself into a lather, viewing the other side as totally clueless. But on this issue, both sides have plenty of clues. They just have different ones.

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  • Snark Plissken||

    For insights on the subject, I emailed Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, professor at New York University and author of the 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

    Because who could offer more true insight into this politically charged topic than Haidt?

  • Sean Mack||

    The guy who cuts my grass, for one.

  • Anomalous||

    Don't be Haidt-in'.

  • ro2nn3||

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  • wwhorton||

    Exactly. So Haidt basically explains it as liberals have hearts overflowing with love, charity, and kindness, while conservatives are stodgy old fuckers who hate whoever doesn't conform.

    And that's true, of course, because no one has ever seen a self-proclaimed liberal utterly annihilate anyone who diverges from orthodoxy. Also, monkeys routinely come flying out of my ass.

  • PapayaSF||

    I think this is a caricature. Haidt is far more fair than this. For one thing he discovered that those on the right are far more able to understand how the left thinks than the other way around.

    That said, I propose "Washington Multiculturals" for the new name.

  • WTF||

    The members of Congress said in their letter that the term is "a racial, derogatory slur akin to the 'N' word among African-Americans."

    One reason for the prevailing sentiment is that many Native Americans don't object to the name.

    Aren't these sentences rather contradictory?
    And I don't think liberals main motivation in this matter is really "compassion". Rather, it is a desire to force conformity of thought and action upon others who may disagree with them, or who are not properly offended by the things liberals find offensive.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    The members of Congress said in their letter that the term is "a racial, derogatory slur akin to the 'N' word among African-Americans."

    One reason for the prevailing sentiment is that many Native Americans don't object to the name.

    There's a difference between "redskin-er" and "redskin-a".

  • WTF||

    Redskinna please!

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    "a racial, derogatory slur akin to the 'N' word among African-Americans

    Wait, so if "Redskin" is akin to "nigger", then apparently you can pretty much get away with using wildly offensive racial epithets as names for your sports teams! Now I'm looking forward to the first game between the Detroit Niggers and the New York Kikes.

  • ||

    Winner plays the Arizona Wetbacks?

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    It's either that or the San Francisco Fags.

  • wwhorton||

    New expansion team: Pensacola Peckerwoods!

  • KPres||

    And now...introducing YOUUUR...Chicago Chinks!

  • Brian||

    Do they have to be racial slurs?

    I want to see the Washington, DC Asshats take the field.

    Come on: they'd be the team everyone loves to hate.

  • SomeGuy||

    damn you beat me :)

  • crufus||

    They won't get past the Boston Micks.

  • sloopyinca||

    If we're gonna be accurate, wouldn't they name the new team, any new team, the Washington Retards?

  • Zeb||

    That's just silly. If "redskin" were anything like as offensive as "nigger" there wouldn't be a professional sports team named that.
    Using "redskin" to actually refer to an Indian just sounds silly and deliberately archaic.

  • KPres||

    Victimhood is the new currency in Obama's America. It's true that a startup like "redskin" doesn't have the same market cap as an established brand like "nigger"......yet. But these are tireless entrepreneurs, driven by the spirit of rugged collectivism, and dead set on digging up the hatchet! There are pities of scale to be exploited here! Nothing lasts forever, you see. Socialism is in a state of constant revulsion, with a endless flow of new sob stories ready to pounce on old griefers they find resting on their handouts. It's an unstoppable cycle of Envious Destruction.

  • sloopyinca||

    It's not just Obama's America. Griefers have been bitching about this since the Clinton admin, when the Atlanta Braves and their Tomahawk Chop were considered evil incarnate.

  • CE||

    How many is "many"? Would it matter if it were 90%? 30%? 10%?

    The term "red%#@n" is a racial slur, and the team name should have been changed 20 years ago.

  • Sean Mack||

    Here's a good reason to take the other side of this argument: Because the once noble cause of "anti-racism" is now a very harmful movement that, in its least dangerous form, denies perfectly obvious group differences and encourages everyone to run around feeling perpetually anxious (if you're white) or perpetually aggrieved (if you're not). In its advanced form, "anti-racism" is one of the leading causes of, and excuses for, state coercion in the world today.

    Also, Jonathan Haidt is just a total hack. Every time this site stoops to mention his non-falsifiable theories, it takes an unfortunate step in the direction of Oprahville.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    LEAVE DR. OZ ALONE!

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    They're still on the Redskins shit?

    God these people are obnoxious.

  • Swiss Servator, Geneverific!||

    Moving on from the high triumph of women joining Augusta National.... Forward!

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    They should propose 'Rougeskins' or 'Rossoskins.'

  • CE||

    A country club should be allowed to extend or deny membership to anyone they want. No sports team should be named after a racial slur.

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    There should be more outrage over their uniforms. Maroon and yellow? Yeech!

  • Virginian||

    Burgundy and gold you mean? Our colors are awesome.

    Some of the best butthurt of the last month was when ESPN did a uniform ranking and the guy who wrote the article said something like "Their uniforms look great, but the ugliness of their name drags them down to number 20 on the list."

    Such sweet sweet butthurt.

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    I know maroon and yellow when I see it, and it is not a good look.

  • KPres||

    "Burgundy and gold you mean?"

    They all look the same to him.

  • wwhorton||

    I mean, if they can get a pass for the worst offensive play calling in the division then I don't see why they can't keep McDonald's condiment colors.

  • Rich||

    Pamunkey

    RACIST!

  • Bee Tagger||

    or that Utah, where the NBA's Jazz are based, is the last place you'd think of when you think of jazz.

    I understand why it's not the first place, but why is it the last?

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    No black people in Utah?

  • wareagle||

    just the ones who play for the Jazz.

  • Rich||

    +3 points

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    See, I didn't even think of them. Therefore, Utah is the last place you'd think of!

  • ||

    Because nobody hates drug-abusing, swinging jazz cats more than uptight Mormons who ban dancing from their towns.

    By the way, cliches are patronizing and racist. Except for the really comfortable ones...

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    By the way, cliches are patronizing and racist.

    Kind of like a certain religious doctrine that was believed until 1978.

    According to LDS Apostle Bruce McConkie, some of those who fought on God's side

    "were more valiant than others…Those who were less valiant in pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed upon them during mortality are known to us as the negroes. Such spirits are sent to earth through the lineage of Cain, the mark put upon him for his rebellion against God and his murder of Abel being a black skin...The present status of the negro rests purely and simply on the foundation of pre-existence" (Mormon Doctrine, p.527, 1966 ed.).

    Jus' sayin'

  • ||

    Not to belabor the point, but

    A) Not everyone in Utah is a Mormon
    B) Not all jazz musicians are black

    That was kinda the point I was driving at.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    I always thought it to be second to last. But that's me.

  • Pelosi's Accommodator||

    Who would you have put last? They're certainly who I'd think of in last place in the "good beer" category.

    Mississippi is last place in "good pizza".

    I haven't thought about anything else. I only care about beer and pizza.

  • ||

    They're certainly who I'd think of in last place in the "good beer" category.

    Well you can go ahead and put Mississippi and Alabama behind Utah on that point. At least Salt Lake City has some good breweries. Alabama just bothered to get around to legalizing homebrewing. Wasatch/Settlers is good and distributed here in Texas.

  • wwhorton||

    I don't know, I've had some godawful pizza in PA, although it was in the Pennsyltucky part. It had that terrible almost cornbread-like crust, but wasn't an attempt at deep dish. Red Baron is better than some "home-made" pizza I've had in Lancaster or Altoona.

  • Carolynp||

    See, I would have thought Oregon would have been last place, but we have awesome beer, so when you inject that into the measure and calibrate...

  • CE||

    It's the second place I think of, after New Orleans:

    http://www.slcjazzfestival.org/

  • Johnimo||

    Because Mormons can't dance?

  • TondoJondo||

    Sounds like some serious business to me dude.

    www.GotPrivacy.tk

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    The only way this article could have been dumber is to have been longer.

  • Will Nonya||

    Don't encourage him.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

  • Number 2||

    As an Italian American, where can I go to demand that Equatorial Guinea change its demeaning, racist, hateful name that I will never use again in any post I leave here?! The International Court of Justice?

    To say nothing about the Fighting Irish, which has its roots in the 19th Century stereotype of Irish immigrants being a bunch of drunken brawlers...

  • sarcasmic||

    WOP's up? How's your dago?

  • Number 2||

    Ha ha ha. You have earned your name.

  • Rich||

    And don't forget to demand the end of helicopters!

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    I'm only fractionally Italian, but I'm fully offended.

    To say nothing about the Fighting Irish, which has its roots in the 19th Century stereotype of Irish immigrants being a bunch of drunken brawlers...

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    As an Italian-Canadian I take offense to any team calling themselves 'Senators' or 'Romans.'

    Don't they know they were blood-thirsty, imperialist killers?

  • Robert||

    Well, they did change Fernando Poo to Bioko, plus city names.

    We still got Redskins in the Warrior Football Club. My team this year is the Navajos, which Coach Eric abbrs. the "'jos".

  • Matrix||

    There has been criticism at the Florida State Seminoles, the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians. It'll never end.

    Heck, there are people who find the Notre Dame Fighting Irish offensive... 'cause Irish people are belligerent, or something.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Yeah, despite the fact that Osceola's first costume was made by a Seminole woman.

    I won't rest until Houston's pro football team has to change its name.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Somali Pirates are in on it too now taking offense to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

  • Number 2||

    Are Norwegian-Americans offended by Vikings? And how could I forget American Catholics being offended by Saints and Padres, not to mention Cardinals?

  • Number 2||

    And every American in a state north of the Mason-Dixon Line should be outraged by the hateful name, Yankees!

  • Carolynp||

    Hey, as you mention it, I'm French. Any chance I can get a cut of French fry sales? I mean French toast would be nice, also, but I have a feeling the French fry sales are my bread and butter, or crepe and suzette, if you will.

  • Anomalous||

    Don't forget the Kansas City Chiefs. Although Giants fans would like to, after yesterday's game.

  • Number 2||

    Giants!?!!? Are you being hateful to those who suffer the heartbreaking disability of a hyperactive thyroid gland!

    Clearly the New York Football Team and the San Francisco Baseball Team endorse oppression of the differently-abled by the temporarily-abled!

  • wwhorton||

    They prefer the term, "big people".

  • Robert||

    You mean pituitary.

  • Seamus||

    To say nothing about the Fighting Irish, which has its roots in the 19th Century stereotype of Irish immigrants being a bunch of drunken brawlers...

    I, for one, am grossly offended by the suggestion that the Irish are extraordinarily pugnacious, and I'll punch the lights out of anyone who says they are.

  • trshmnstr||

    There's also the parallel fight from the PETAites that animal mascots are immoral because SLAVERIEZ!!!

  • CE||

    There's a fundamental difference between names of a tribe, or an individual title, and a racial slur. I don't see why people don't get that.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I grew up halfway between Baltimore and DC, a total Washington Redskins fan. Back then, DC was still very much culturally a Southern town and very much subject to "white flight". The team itself was, for a long time, the only team representing the South. Hell, when I was growing up, the words to the fight song still went:

    Hail to the Redskins
    Hail victory
    Braves on the Warpath
    Fight, for Old Dixie!

    When the participants in the Boston Tea Party dressed up as Indians--to make a point. The fact is that Americans have always used Native Americans as an emblem for anything considered endemic and untamed. That is what the name means to an awful lot of old school Redskins fans.

    They know the name is obnoxious--and that's part of the reason some of them like it, too. Opposition to the end of segregation was also obnoxious. Riding around with a rebel flag in the back of your hot rod was obnoxious, and most every kid with a hot rod put the stars and bars on their car somewhere.

    I know the demographics of the area have changed with all those god damn federal employees filling up tract homes developments, where there used to be farmland when I was a kid. But loving the Redskins name is giving the finger to all those new arrivals, too.

  • wwhorton||

    I'm from Annapolis, and I spent a good bit of my early childhood in Bowie. The area has changed dramatically even since the 70s. Annapolitans and a lot of Marylanders in the area and points south would have considered themselves Southerners if you asked; at a minimum, not Northerners.

    For the past couple decades that's changed, what with DC commuters moving out this way and New Yorkers/New Jerseyites moving south. The culmination happened a few years ago, when our thievin' mick of a governor (apologies to any non-thievin' micks reading this, such as 1/4 of myself) took us out of the Organization of Southern States or whatever it's called and stuck us in with New Jersey. Broke my heart, honestly.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I grew up just outside of Laurel.

    It was all farms and forest.

    I'd hate to go back now. I might never go back there again.

  • 21044||

    I am sitting in Laurel right now. I am here only because work brought me. My son just moved to Texas, he won't be back. If I were 10 years younger, I'd be with him.

  • Tonio||

    Uh, Ken, Dude, I think you were mishearing that fight song. It's always been:

    Fight for old DC.

    Unless they changed it before the seventies.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Yeah, they changed it.

    At least, my folks still have sheet music for the song from before I was born, and it says "Fight for Old Dixie"!

    In the old days, they used to sing "Dixie" right after the fight song.

    As in.

    "Fight for Old Dixie!

    I wish I were in the Land of Cotton..."

  • CE||

    That would be Texas.

  • Response||

    My wife lived in England as a child for a year or so during the 1970s. If she did something that ticked off a schoolmate, she would often hear them attempt to chide her by calling her a "Yankee". They couldn't comprehend that "Yankee" wasn't an insult and would additionally laugh when she would say, "Yeah, I'm a Yankee".

    If we were a global community, Yankee would fall under the same global connotation as Redskin.

  • Tonio||

    I'm from the (US) South and don't like being called a Yankee.

  • Robert||

    It was an English slur against the Dutch among the colonists, later extended to all the English colonists to imply they'd adopted foreign ways.

  • Will Nonya||

    Was there a point to this article? It seems like it was just an opportunity for the author to raise the clueless nature of the major political parties with a back ground note of support for minority rule.

  • Bryan C||

    Also, it's none of the government's fucking business.

  • HenryC||

    Only if it gets them votes. Then they should care.

  • Hey, you!||

    C'mon Chapman. You guys at Reason need to get some cajones....and use them when it comes to racial sensitive issues.

    Don't say people's politics are the real issue for this debate when you just know that their is political implications behind the tribes whining. That's a cheap shot at the average person, and a weak way out of the real debate that may involve something ugly for you. It's OK to call out a group or person that involves a PC sensitive topic when they're wrong. I give you, as an (American) Indian (redskin), permission to say the tribe's leaders are a bunch of idiots. Just say what needs to be pointed out. For example: Mandela was not a nice peaceful guy; he was a commie that had a lot of people die under him.

    Sometimes "reason" doesn't involve seeking out the middle ground for the sake of peace. Sometimes it involves a fight for truth - intellectually speaking. You don't sacrifice truth and information just to appease a lie.

  • Sevo||

    The real meaning is that there is no issue so trivial that the government won't stick its nose in.

  • coma44||

    "Should Congress care about the name of a professional sports team?"

    Not not.....BUT fuck no!

    They should be worried about cutting Spending and the Governments size and scope.

    But instead they can jump on "feelz good street" and do something about a "name"

  • mtrueman||

    I may be wrong, but I thought the government was involved up to its eyebrows with professional sports like football, having granted the NFL monopoly status etc. If so, government concern over team names should be the least of a libertarian's worries.

  • Sevo||

    Well, no.
    ANY effort to remove government from ANY activity is good.
    The fact that they are engaged elsewhere is no excuse to ignore this intrusion.

  • mtrueman||

    But I don't see much effort to remove the government from sports. Making a fuss over changing a tasteless name is tacitly accepting more important intrusions like subsidies to stadiums etc. It's a question of priorities, and I would have thought that the misuse of tax money should take precedence over wading into a debate over identity politics.

  • nina.Malik||

    my best friend's sister-in-law makes $74 hourly on the computer. She has been laid off for 5 months but last month her pay was $14134 just working on the computer for a few hours. have a peek at this website....

    http://www.Works23.Com

  • Johnimo||

    Go REDSKINS! Is Notre Dame University's "Fighting Irish" a derogatory name? Political correctness has gone way too far. Get over it!

  • Sevo||

    Whatever happened to the "Fighting Honkies"?

  • jdgalt||

    I suggest they rename it the Washington Victims. That will play right to the hearts of the left and ensure an ongoing flow of subsidy money.

    Excuse me while I upchuck.

  • LiberTarHeel||

    "And now, ladies and gentlemen ... your Baltimore ... er, Washington Bullets!"

    OOPS! Gun control to Major Tom!

    "And now, ladies and gentlemen ... your Washington ... Wizards!"

    (And let us not forget that they tried to turn even that into a Klan mantra!)

    It's only a matter of time, dear friends.

  • VangelV||

    Expression of racism? Can someone please start thinking rather than acting purely out of emotion?

    Let us begin with a thought experiment. Steve Chapman gets an NHL franchise and has to come up with a name. How do we suppose that he proceeds choosing one? Does he find a nickname for a racial group that he despises or does he choose one that provides the best image for the players on his team? I suggest that it is the latter. When the original owners chose the name Redskins it was a sign of admiration and respect, not racism. Keeping the name makes a lot of sense because it teaches the ignorant that language and sentiment changes over time.

  • Dennis Webb||

    "As a general rule, the names of professional sports teams, and their connotations, are of little concern. No one cares that the Chicago White Sox don't wear white socks, or that Utah, where the NBA's Jazz are based, is the last place you'd think of when you think of jazz."

    When I was a kid growing up in Cincinnati in the 1960s, there was a longstanding movement to rename the Cincinnati Reds (which are actually the Redlegs) for fear the name Reds would promote Communist associations. This was a favorite rant topic on Sunday morning radio phone-in shows. I think they finally got over it.

    The current Redskins controversy will go away as soon as the offended parties become convinced that they in fact will not be getting any compensation from any of this.

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