President Barack Obama took a break from a week-long government shutdown to weigh in on perhaps the second-most contentious issue in the nation’s capital: Changing the Washington Redskins nickname.
“If I were the owner of the team and I knew that the name of my team — even if they’ve had a storied history — was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” Obama told the Associated Press during an interview.
I agree with Obama.
With his ground-breaking comments, Obama has made history once again: He is perhaps the first sitting president to say he would consider changing the Washington Redskins nickname – and his truth could not have come at a better time in the debate.
“All these mascots and team names related to Native Americans, Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it,” Obama said Saturday. “And I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”
Obama is using his second term in office – and his White House bully pulpit — to confront racism and, in this case, the president is calling out the Redskins for its racially offensive nickname.
The Washington Redskins nickname is not only offensive – it’s racist. Native Americans have argued for years that the name offends them, but Redskins owner Dan Snyder has refused requests from Native Americans and others to change the name, which originated during the 1930s.
But take a moment to reflect on the magnitude of Obama’s statement.
As America’s first black president who has already told the nation that he has experienced racial discrimination and outright bigotry, Obama now wades into a highly emotional issue where he is essentially firing a shot over Synder’s bow by using five simple yet powerful words: “If I were the owner…”
Obama is a brilliant politician. He doesn’t make statements on the fly; he doesn’t utter comments without thinking it through; and he certainly would not inject himself into this hornet’s nest if he didn’t feel passionate about the cause. The president could have simply said nothing and let others argue the issue.
But he didn’t.
So why should Obama bother to talk about a sports issue and the Redskins changing its nickname? Because it’s not just a sports story – the “Redskins” nickname is a longstanding symbol of how American citizens are still being demeaned and who better to support Native Americans than America’s first black president.
“As the first sitting president to speak out against the Washington team name, President Obama’s comments are truly historic,” said Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter. “The use of such an offensive term has negative consequences for the Native American community when it comes to issues of self-identity and imagery.”
Perhaps nothing will change. Synder will probably ignore Obama and it will be business as usual in the Redskins front office.
Lanny Davis, a Redskins attorney, said the name is “our history and legacy and tradition.”
“We at the Redskins respect everyone,” Davis said in a statement. “But like devoted fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks (from President Obama’s home town), we love our team and its name and, like those fans, we do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group.”
Davis doesn’t get it – and he’s not trying to get it. The other nicknames Davis mentioned are not racially offensive.
Meanwhile, Robert Klemko, a writer for “Monday Morning Quarterback,” a Sports Illustrated website, announced that the site will no longer use the “Redskins” name.
“I know that our site, we’ve talked about it, and we’re not going to use Redskins in our writing,” Klemko told CBS Sports Radio. “We’re going to say ‘Washington football team.’ And it’s not something we’re going to publicize or write about. We’re just not going to do it.”
Good for Klemko.
Native Americans have been fighting to get the Washington Redskins to change its name for the past 40 years when about a dozen American Indian representatives in 1972 demanded of then-team President Edward Bennett Williams that the Redskins get rid of a nickname they characterized as a “derogatory racial epithet.”
Undoubtedly, there will be those who will read this column and be angry. Outside my barber shop recently, a black man bristled at the notion of changing the name of his beloved Redskins. But minutes earlier, the same brother also argued that Obama must aggressively address the concerns of black people in America.
So Obama should push an agenda for African Americans but ignore Native Americans who view the Washington Redskins nickname as racist?
Obama admits that he is more familiar with basketball than football, but the Redskins nickname is more about racism – something the president knows all too well.