What’s in a Name?

The sports pages of the news used to be a temporary refuge from politics, but since early spring there have been not heroic feats to marvel at and no box scores to pore over, and the only sports news has been drearily political. After a big fuss about the NASCAR stock racing league banning the Confederate battle flag, the big story on Monday was about the National Football League’s Washington Redskins agreeing to change the team name.
The team has been called the Redskins since it first entered the then-fledgling NFL back in 1932, and for the first few decades nobody thought much about it. Starting around the late ’60s, though, there some grumbling from the emerging cultural left about a team using a term coined as a racial slur against Indians as its name, and over time the grumbling few louder. For the past couple of decades the controversy has festered, with occasional protests outside the stadium and the federal patent office denying the team trademark protections for all the products they put their name and logo and some newspapers refusing to refer to the Washington, D.C., franchise by its given name.
Team owner Daniel Snyder long resisted the protestors, saying the name and the Indian head logo on the fifty yard line and on all those licensed products were meant to honor America’s original inhabitants. there’s something to be said for time-honored traditions. There’s something to it, as most people have long thought that “Redskins” was just a colloquial term for Indians like “Yankees” is a term for northeastern Americans and “Cannucks” is slang for Canadians, and the University of Oklahoma Sooners and the University of Kansas Jayhawks and Indiana University Hoosiers have all embraced names that were coined as slurs. America’s varied Indians mostly didn’t give it much thought, having more pressing problems to deal with, and Snyder didn’t see any reason to spend millions of dollars on changing the team’s uniforms and signage and stationery and mailing address.
Halfway into a long, hot summer of demonstrations and debates about racial justice, however, Snyder finally relented. The giant FedEx company and other huge corporations threatened to withdraw from deals to help him finance a fancy new stadium, and the District of Columbia’s municipal government threatened to withhold the necessary permits, and Snyder apparently concluded that would be worse for his bottom line than the few measly million dollars he’d spend to make a change of name and logo. Call it a victory for capitalism or for social justice, or just another capitulation to “political correctness,” but when football eventually resumes the Redskins will no longer be the Redskins.
Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves are being similarly pressured to change names, as are our beloved Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL, along with the few remaining collegiate sports programs with Indian-themed monikers. We’d let the Cleveland ball club pass, as Indians is a neutrally descriptive term, much like the Bethany College Swedes in the charming Swedish-Kansas town of Lindsborg, but they might want to reconsider their grinning mascot “Chief Knock-a-Homa.” The Braves arguably honor the bravery of America’s Indians, but it would be a gesture of respect if the stopped the “Tomahawk Chop” gestures and war cries in the stands. The Chiefs were actually named after machine boss mayor who lured the Dallas Texans to Kansas City, as everyone in town called him “Chief,” but then they added an arrowhead logo to the helmets and fifty-yard line to what is called Arrowhead Stadium, so given the current cultural climate they probably should have gone with the Kansas City Mayors.
A few blocks away from us, just across the Minisa Bridge over the Little Arkansas River, is Wichita North High School, a gorgeous work of architecture adorned with terra cotta decorations depicting Indians. which has been known since its long ago opening as the “Home of the Redskins.” The local board of education has scheduled a public hearing about that, and it should prove interesting. There’s no clamor to change the Indian motifs of either the school or the bridge, which everyone agrees are beautiful and quite respectful, so people are already-talking about something Indian-themed but not at all offensive. One possible name that’s already gaining favor is the North High Keepers, an allusion to the locally beloved “Keeper of the Plains” statue by locally revered artist Blackbear Bosin, which is just downstream at the confluence of the Little Arkansas and Arkansas rivers, where the plains tribes used to meet for pow-wows and political dealing and commerce.
Whatever they decide, we hope everyone will be agreeable about it. North High hasn’t had a good football team since future Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders was in the backfield, and the basketball teams have been lousy since all-time City League scoring champ Conor Frankamp graduated, but it’s a beautiful school with dedicated teachers and mostly Latino and a mostly well-behaved student body, and it’s in the neighborhood, so we root for them when they’re not playing Wichita Heights.
We’d like to think that the rest of country will sort all this agreeably, but we’re not betting on it. There are still hold-outs for the Lost Cause out there, even as the Marines and NASCAR are banishing its most cherished symbol, and many Americans still resist anything that smacks of “political correctness.” We understand the impulse, as “political correctness” does indeed sometimes stifle free and open debate about the complexities of America’s history and its current events, but too many Americans resent any polite public opprobrium against using racial slurs and espousing explicitly racist beliefs.
By no means are all of President Donald Trump’s supporters those sorts of racists, but all of those sorts of racists are Trump supporters, and he did vow to liberate the country from the chains of political correctness. When he somehow got elected while flouting not only “political correctness” but also the most reasonable rules of politeness, it emboldened the worst of his supporters, but they’ve probably been disappointed by the results.
Trump is opposed to the Redskins changing their name, of course. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president believes most Indians will be “very angry” about it, Trump also “tweeted” that “They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness, but now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names order to be politically correct. Indians, like Elizabeth Warren, must be very angry now.” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has nothing to do with this, of course, but he can never resist insulting her.
No matter how boldly he flouts both “political correctness” and basic politeness, though, Trump is clearly losing the culture wars. The Confederacy is still polling badly after all these years, with both NASCAR and the state of Missssiippi retiring the Stars and Bars, and most people don’t think that “black lives matter” is hate speech. If the NFL ever gets to play football again league policy will allow players to take a knee in protest against police brutality during the national anthem. Many of America’s top athletes and best teams have declined invitations to the White House, and they’re unafraid to express their opinions.
Deep in his wheeling-and-dealing real estate developer’s black ink heart Trump knows the bottom line reason that Snyder at last agreed to change the name of ‘Skins, and can’t hold it against him. Corporate America is currently aligned with social justice and racial equality and sensitivity to minority groups and all the the rest of that “political correctness,” and we’re sure it’s because their marketing departments have their fingers on the pulse of public opinion and are looking to their bottom lines. Trump would do well to keep that in mind, but he also needs to call of his base intact and enthused come Election Day.

— Bud Norman

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