July 15, 2020

Redskins Name Change - On Turning the Page

The Washington Redskins, after 83 years, are changing their name.

As a lifelong fan it comes down to two fundamental questions for me. First, should they? And second, as a passionate follower of the team for fifty years, how do I feel about it—how will it affect my fandom?

On the sobering question of “should ...”

For most of my adult life I have defended the team name based on a simple premise—that the only real data I had ever seen suggested some Native Americans were offended by the name or saw it as demeaning, but that they represented far less than a majority. It seemed like a simple equation, one applicable to any social movement. What is the magic number? Should ten percent speak for the majority and force change? Should twenty percent? Forty? I posed that question for many years and never received a considered answer.

So I hailed my Redskins and moved on.

Over the past few months, given developments in this country, my perspective has … evolved. For one thing, I am seeing more and more evidence in the public domain that has me wondering what those data points might look like if gathered today. Maybe “offended” and “demeaned” have always been subjective terms.

There is also a far broader context.

Something is happening in our country. It’s no longer just about a sports team mascot. It is America in the early 21st century, lurching forward in great fits and starts, crashing into guardrails along a road that leads, with a little luck and lots of perseverance, toward a more enlightened, just, and long-lived future. We are all here for the long haul, with our wildly different backgrounds, beliefs and desires, so we are going to have to figure this thing out together. There are existential challenges waiting out there that are going to demand our undivided attention.

Societal change is hard.  Inclusion, tolerance, justice, compromise, equality … these cannot just be buzzwords—they should be foundation stones.

As for my fandom ...

I have spent considerable time reflecting on fifty years of Redskins fandom, trying to put a finger on what part of that passion might have been about the name. I’ve looked back on the most heartfelt things I can recall writing about the team, and its place in my life, and found they were about … the team. Not the name. Not the brand. The entity.

The sense of identity I feel with and toward the Washington Redskins has always been about an connection to something—to a team playing a game I love, representing my home, through which I have shared highs, lows, history and hopes with family, friends and neighbors. It was about the camaraderie, the crowd, the colors.

I must acknowledge some wistfulness about such a fundamental change, but I believe that had all other things been equal, I would have felt the same about my team no matter what they had been called.

Except maybe Cowboys.

Many of my fellow Redskins fans, whose passion I do not question, have long said that if the team ever changed its name they would be done. Out. And I think they believed that. I also think that when the Washington ______s become a relevant, contending football team, most will find their way back. It will not be about the name on the banner or logo on the helmet, but passion for the sport, and for the visceral journey of following a team that means something to them chasing a championship.

In 1971, on the final day of the Major League Baseball season, my ten-year-old heart broke as my Washington Senators played their last game. They lost, of course, when the home fans stormed the field, turning an improbable comeback to seemingly win their final game into a soul-crushing forfeit to the NY Yankees.

I don’t remember thinking about the team name then, they were just … my team. And for a time, they continued to be “my team,” even after becoming the Texas Rangers. I followed them via the daily sports section, checking the box score, checking the standings, wondering how Jeff Burroughs had done the night before. That lasted a couple of years, but eventually they stopped being “my” team. They were Texas, I was Virginia.

I followed the Baltimore Orioles for a few years, admiring Cal Ripken’s class on and off the field, but I never adopted them or experienced the gnawing in the gut when they lost. I feel wins and losses with Washington on the jersey. Eventually, when the Nationals came to town and “we” had a team again, I did enjoy having a new local team to follow, even if I didn’t think much of the name.

The passion didn’t come back right away though. Know when it did? When they became a relevant, contending team. So there I was one late night last Fall, no longer a kid but now pushing sixty, chewing my lip, with my gut in a twist, as Washington was this close to winning the World Series for the first time since … forever.

Nationals, huh? Kind of has a ring to it.

I remember when Lew Alcindor became Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar. I remember when Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. I remember people much older than I saying they would never respect those men again. I was a kid, I didn’t understand. People were people right?

I did find it strange (they just changed their names—can you even do that?). I found it kind of cool (the names were exotic, classy). And for the first time I became aware certain individuals felt strongly enough about some things to take such a life-altering stand despite the harassment and sheer inconvenience (maybe someday I’ll feel that strongly about something).

My real light bulb moment on the name change didn’t come from analysis, though. It came from the heart.

My oldest daughter is engaged to be married. Like most fathers, I wouldn't hesitate to give my own life for hers. I don’t know if she plans to take her future husband’s name. I do know, should she choose to, that I will celebrate her decision—that it would be right for her.

I also know, beyond any trace of a doubt, that if she does change her name, it will not change my memories, or how I feel about her, or what she means to me. A new name would change nothing that truly matters.

So, one last time … Hail to the Redskins.

Onward and upward.