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The case for a Washington Redskins Name Change

Ethan Vassar
July 4, 2020

2020 will be remembered as a year of great change for the NFL. The year has seen the Raiders move to Las Vegas, the GOAT sign with Tampa Bay after becoming a free agent for the first time in his 20 year career, a shortened preseason and regular season impacted by a global pandemic, and - potentially - a name change for the Washington Redskins.

As controversial as the possibility of a name change may be, the definition of the term "redskin" should be more cut and dry. The term is, at minimum, offensive and derogatory and rises to the level of a racial slur according to legislative assistant for the National Congress of American Indians Brian Howard. Dictionary.com defines it as a "contemptuous term" and identifies it as disparaging and offensive. Merriam Webster offers no definition for the word other than "usually offensive." It should be obvious that any term which refers to a person or group based upon the color of one's skin (other that white or black, as they are names of races identified by the US Census Bureau) is inadmissible.

Those who would be in defense of Washington's team name and mascot often cite past polls published by the Washington Post indicating that the majority of Native Americans did not find the term offensive. Thanks to a comprehensive study done by the University of California, Berkeley, the opposite is now evident. The study, the largest-scale investigation to date into the relationship between Native American identity and attitudes toward Native mascots, interviewed more than 1,000 self-identified Native Americans across 148 tribes in all 50 states. It's findings? The majority of those surveyed were opposed to the team name and found it offensive. 49% of the participants either agreed or strongly agreed that the term “redskins” is offensive, while 38% were not bothered by it. The remaining 13% were undecided or indifferent. Furthermore, those numbers rose to 67% among participants said to be heavily involved in native or tribal cultures, 60% among young people and 52% of people with tribal affiliations.

The term "redskin" is not only offensive to the majority of Native Americans, but it is harmful to their mental and psychological health as well. A recent study done by clinical psychologist Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D. aimed to study the effect of the "Washington football mascot" and examine "the scientific rationale for the position that the Washington football team's
“R-word” mascot is harmful to the Native American population and should therefore be changed." The study is exceptionally thorough, detailing the effect depression, substance abuse, suicide, and more have on the Native American community in relation to Washington's mascot. Although it can be tough to believe at first, there is a scientific basis and numerous references which arrive at the same conclusion. The conclusion? - the presence of Native American mascots like Washington's result in "higher levels of depression, substance abuse, suicidality, and other negative physical symptoms and health behaviors" among Native Americans. And Friedman's work is not the only study which provides evidence for a name change. Friedman cites this, along with the fact that the Native American suicide rate is among the highest in the country and has risen by an alarming 65% in the last decade alone, as grounds for a name change. Is the name of a football team really worth it considering it these unintended consequences?

It should not be radical or controversial to suggest a sports team name not contain offensive language. The rest of the NFL is proof, as the other 31 team names do not contain offensive words or a derogatory description of a race. So save the debate for what Washington's new team name should be (I'm partial to Redtails) rather than if it should be changed.

The term "redskin" does have a place in society, just not on a football helmet. Like other racist and derogatory terms, it belongs in an educational and historical setting, serving as a reminder of a past to be learned from that not need be repeated. However, we're still living in the past if the Redskins name remains unchanged. A past we have yet to learn from.

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