Judging by the utterly unscientific polling in my twitter feed, Bob Costas’s half-time commentary on the Washington Redskins name managed to displease almost everybody. The sports fans were enraged that Costas said the name could be seen as “a slur” and “an insult”. They were irate that Costas would bring his “politics” into sports, as if having a team representing the nation’s capital called “Redskins” is not in fact political. They also used various forms of the phrase “pussification of America,” which makes me curious why the men in my Twitter feed who love the Redskins name also seem to have such unbridled contempt for women.
On the other side of the issue, there were many tweeting, texting, and e-mailing me that they were angry Costas started his commentary by saying, ”[T]here’s no reason to believe that owner Daniel Snyder, or any official or player from his team, harbors animus towards Native Americans, or chooses to disrespect them.” They argued that by telling mistruths about the team’s history, responding with such rancor to those asking about changing the name and refusing to meet with Native Americans who disagree with the name, he is absolutely “disrespecting” Native American history.
They were also upset that Costas stated that names like the Braves—home of the tomahawk chop—and the Kansas City Chiefs—home of this guy– “honor, rather than demean” and “they’re pretty much the same as Vikings, Patriots, or even Cowboys.” People pointed out that there is a reason all “mascoting” of Native Americans has been opposed by the Oneida, the Choctaw and many other Tribal councils. It is because they turn Native American culture into solely a symbol of the savage and the violent. They also, as minstrelsy tends to do, allows the dominant culture to turn a blind eye to the very real problems of poverty, education and healthcare in the Native American community.
My view, and I cannot say this forcefully enough, is that whatever problems people may have with the content of what Bob Costas said, the veteran broadcaster seized the moment and was a profile in courage. Costas did the unthinkable: he took a stand against racism on national television. He also openly—as he did a year ago by addressing gun culture after the horrific murder suicide perpetrated by Chiefs’ player Jovan Belcher against Kasandra Perkins—willingly courted the ire of disturbingly violent right-wing sports fans and their droogs in the conservative blogosphere. (These right-wingers seem to always ignore that the greatest backer of changing the name in Congress is Oklahoma Republican and Choctaw Nation member Tom Cole.)
Take a step back and look at what Costas did. He faced the camera on the most watched television show in the United States and said the following.
“Think for a moment about the term ‘Redskins,’ and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be if directed towards African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians or any other ethnic group. When considered that way, ‘Redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”
If you had told me even two months ago that Bob Costas would be saying those words, I would have been in a state of shock. The terrain has changed. Credit for this should go to The Oneida Nation, the Choctaw, Suzan Harjo, and—unsung in the media—the longtime work on this in hostile environs by Washington Post columnist Mike Wise. Credit should also go to RG3, the team quarterback whose greatness—on display even in last night’s terrible loss to the Cowboys—has made the team relevant for the first time in fifteen years. Credit should also go to team owner Dan Snyder for being so ineffably obnoxious about the whole issue, it makes anyone who stands alongside him feel like they need to shower with steel wool afterwards. And credit should truly go to Bob Costas for having the guts to take what is still a minority position and put it to the widest possible audience.
I believe that support for the “Redskins” name is 1,000 miles wide and one inch thick. Most people just, in the words of former coach Joe Gibbs, “haven’t really thought about it.” Bob Costas now has people thinking about it, and that is the first step toward a long overdue change.
Dave Zirin looks at how Rick Reilly’s plan to use his in-laws to defend the Redskin name backfired.