WASHINGTON – In some ways, it is 1991 all over again. The Washington Redskins are the reigning NFC East champs and there is a call for change — a name change.
Several Native American groups, including the National Congress of Indians, have been ramping up their criticism of the use of “Redskins” as the team’s nickname. Next month there will be a hearing on a lawsuit to strip federal trademark protection of the name.
Back in 1991, WTOP made a decision to stop using the name because it was offensive to Native Americans. It was a well-meaning call of then general manager Michael Douglass, but it did not start a trend. Other media outlets did not follow WTOP’s lead. As I recall, it was generally scoffed at.
The Redskins went on to win the NFC East and then the Super Bowl. The debate over “Redskins” being the nickname of the NFL team in the nation’s capital soon faded. As the victory parade rolled through the streets of D.C., there was little discussion about whether “Redskins” was an appropriate moniker for a championship sports team.
At the time, the Redskins defended their nickname. Here in 2013, under the glare of even more scrutiny, the team is again playing defense. There was not a website in 1991, but this week the Redskins posted videos featuring representatives of high schools with the nickname “Redskins” explaining how it is not offensive in their communities.
Redskins general manager Bruce Allen appreciates the team’s history. Allen’s dad was George Allen, who coached the team in the 1970s. Allen said it was “ludicrous” to suggest that the franchise is trying to upset Native Americans.
“There’s nothing that we feel is offensive,” Allen said. “And we’re proud of our history.”
Changing a team’s name is not easy.
The Washington Bullets won an NBA title in 1978, but they are now the Wizards. Abe Pollin was the team owner in 1997 when the switch occurred. It was made because he did not want his franchise to have “Bullets” as a nickname in a city that at the time was being called the “murder capital.”
I don’t expect a similar bold move by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.
It always seems to come down to the money.
In college sports, offensive nicknames have been dropped. Syracuse is no longer the Orangemen, but just the Orange. St John’s is no longer the Redmen, but the Red Storm. North Dakota is no longer the Fighting Sioux. In fact, North Dakota has no nickname.
The NCAA made the sweeping change with names happen when it threatened postseason bans for schools that did not eliminate offensive nicknames.
If the Washington Redskins are ever to have another nickname, it’s up to the NFL.
The league has the big bargaining chip in the form of its lucrative television contract and the shares it doles out to member teams.
Barring action by the NFL, it will be 1991 all over again. The issue will fade, even if the hurt some feel by “Redskins” as a nickname doesn’t.