The word “appropriate” is one of the better homonyms in the English language. As an adjective, it is defined as “suitable or proper in the circumstances,” while as a verb appropriate means “to take something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.”
Which brings us to the Washington Redskins.
Currently the Redskins are more than a disappointing NFC East franchise; they are a national litmus test. The franchise has in recent months taken a lot of heat – and not Miami Heat – because its name is a racial slur. Which - and we might as well deal with this question right away - it is.
The conflagration was reignited last May, when team owner Dan Snyder told USA Today, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER. You can use caps.”
History may remember those words as Snyder’s Last Stand.
Last September, a few days before the first Sunday of this NFL season, Peter King of Sports Illustrated wrote:
“I’ve decided to stop using the Washington team nickname…it offends too many people, and I don’t want to add to the offensiveness.”
King’s stance, which has also been adopted by Slate and USA Today’s Christine Brennan, drew some brush-back. Chris “Mad Dog” Russo invited him on his Sirius XM radio show and asked, “Why now, all of a sudden, has it dawned on you that the name might be offensive?”
A little history may help. The franchise was born in Boston in 1932 and operated for one year as the Boston Braves. Then, in 1933, its notoriously racist owner renamed it the Redskins, presumably in honor of then coach Paul “Lone Star” Dietz, a former teammate of Jim Thorpe’s at the famed Carlisle Indian School. In a delicious twist of irony, Dietz claimed Sioux heritage but in the decades since his death in 1964 that claim has undergone serious skepticism. The man in whose honor the Redskins were named may not even have been a Native American.
The franchise relocated to Washington in 1937 and have been the Washington Redskins ever since.
In mid-September, ESPN.com columnist Rick Reilly wrote that the Redskins controversy was much ado about squat, and quoted his father-in-law, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, as saying, “The whole issue is so silly to me. The name just doesn’t bother me much.”
A few weeks later, Reilly’s father-in-law, wrote a letter to a Native American website, Indian Country Today Media Network, claiming that Reilly had misquoted him. That ought to make for an interesting Thanksgiving dinner next month at Rick’s place.
On and on it goes. One pundit scalps the name from his sports lexicon, inciting another to circle the wagons.
King strikes the term from his professional glossary of terms, and then his SI colleague, Seth Davis, comes out in support of Reilly’s column. Davis, however, fails to note that his father, Lanny Davis, was recently hired by Snyder to be the team’s crisis manager for this controversy.
Last Sunday night, Bob Costas devoted two minutes of the halftime show for NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast - featuring the Redskins visiting the Dallas Cowboys - to address the topic. Costas began by stating that “it seems like an appropriate time to address the ongoing controversy about the name Redskins.”
“Ask yourself what the equivalent would be if directed toward African-Americans, or Hispanics, or Asians,” Costas said. “When considered that way, Redskins can’t possibly honor a heritage or a noble character trait, nor can it possibly considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”
Costas’ commentary seemed rational and even-keeled, but two days later conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg denounced it as a “tirade” and stated that Costas and others of that ilk “are simply deciding to be offended by something they don’t need to be.”
It’s worth noting that both Davis and Goldberg have spent a sizable chunk of their lives in the Beltway and are avid fans of the NFL team.
Which brings us back to the homonym “appropriate.” Was it appropriate for the franchise to appropriate the name “Redskins” 80 years ago? I don’t know. I do know that one of the most popular radio shows at the time, in an age when radio was our most popular entertainment medium, was Amos ‘n Andy, which starred two white performers in black-face performing exaggerated caricatures of Negro stereotypes.
And some of the nation’s most respected brands, such as Pepsodent, sponsored the show.
Times change. As do societal mores.
In sports, we appropriate - some would say exploit - Native American culture to name our teams: besides Redskins we have the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL, Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL, and both the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball. We appropriate their weapons as proud symbols, be it the tomahawk chop of Braves’ fans or the arrowhead on the side of every Chief’s helmet. We even appropriate war gestures: Witness the Florida State Seminole mascot, Chief Osceola, burying a burning spear at midfield before every home game in Tallahassee.
But how much thought do we give to the fact that European settlers appropriated their land? And might the indigenous peoples of North America have a slightly less bellicose and warrior-like reputation if their ancestors had not been attacked and forced into assimilation in the first place?
Isn’t it more offensive that we squabble over the term “Redskins” while devoting so little thought to that extraordinary act of appropriation?