Dan Snyder has missed the point.
Yesterday, the Washington Post published the results of a national poll of 504 Native Americans. Maybe surprisingly, only 1 in 10 people who answered the phone went on to answer “offensive” to the following question:
The professional football team in Washington calls itself the Washington Redskins. As a Native American, do you find that name offensive, or doesn’t it bother you?
The number jumped to 1 in 5 among Native Americans who also identified as liberals.
But still, 9 out of 10 people were not bothered by the name, and Dan Snyder took a victory lap because Dan Snyder will never learn.
“The Washington Redskins team, our fans and community have always believed our name represents honor, respect and pride,” Snyder said in a statement. “Today’s Washington Post polling shows Native Americans agree. We are gratified by this overwhelming support from the Native American community, and the team will proudly carry the Redskins name.”
His last sentence is a broad logical leap. Not being bothered by something is not the same as supporting it. The Native Americans polled were not asked if they supported the name Redskins being used by the team. Given that 77% of people responded that the name debate was somewhere between “Not too” and “Not at all” important to them, one could imagine lukewarm numbers around support.
But still, Dan Snyder is happy. He’s offended only 1 in 10 Native Americans, and that’s good enough for him.
Other teams aim a little higher, I guess. For example, the New York Knickerbockers might have the dumbest name in professional sports, but it probably offends 0 percent of people. Same with the Hornets, the Dolphins, and the Jazz, to name some of the least intimidating mascots in professional sports.
Then again, it’s hard to imagine John Mara, owner of the New York Giants, coming to the podium to defend his team’s silly name in Snyder’s self-important way. The New York Giants team, our fans and community have always believed our name represents honor, respect and pride, has said no member of the Giants franchise ever. Because, sometimes, a name is just name.
Sometimes, though, a name is more than a name. It’s a rallying cry or an ideal: the Warriors, the Bulls, the Trail Blazers. These names are more than names; they’re identities and ambitions.
The Giants are proud to be Giants because the name is a metonym for the organization. They would likely be just as proud under any number of banners.
But that is not what Snyder is saying. His attachment to the name Redskins is not a matter of tradition. He doesn’t believe that names are meaningless placeholders. To him, the name implies “respect” and “pride.” He has previously said the word connotes “strength” and “courage.”
I would be more comfortable with Snyder defending the team’s name if he was more indifferent to its meaning; if his attachment to it was something closer to nostalgia.
But Snyder wants the name for the ideas he believes it conjures up, the way the Rams and the Thunder do. We don’t take offense when animals and weather are essentialized in this way, because neither do animals or weather.
I’m relieved to learn that most Native American people polled weren’t bothered by the name Redskins, and it’s even better news to me how few people said the debate affected them personally. It would be worse to find out that the team’s name was having a significant negative impact on people.
But is that really the only measure of whether or not the name’s offensive in the first place? Certainly relevant is the intent of it. And while Snyder does not intend to upset people, he does intend to essentialize them. He wants the name for its meaning and the meaning he ascribes is narrow and stigmatizing, even if most Native Americans aren’t too concerned with what Dan Snyder thinks about them.
There are plenty of reasons to change the team’s name: the 1 in 10 Native Americans who are upset, the 1 in 5 liberal Native Americans who are upset, the columns and columns of bad press, and the litigation fees Snyder is racking up trying to beat his opponents down, to name a few.
But Snyder is mistaken to believe the debate is still exclusively about what the word Redskins means in the abstract; more fundamental to me, as a person and a football fan, is what Snyder’s desperate attachment to it says about the man in charge.