The Redskins petition – and what it does (and doesn’t) mean

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It was interesting to see that 49 United States senators signed a petition pointing out that the nickname of the NFL’s Washington Redskins is racist and urging the NFL to push the team to change their name. (Yes, I know that the graphic above says 50, and that it’s been reported in the news as 50. I’ve seen the petition and counted the signatures; it has 49 of them.) My immediate reaction was that this was a pretty damning indictment – nearly HALF the U.S. Senate saying you should do something is a pretty strong hint.

But then I looked into two things: the petition, and the signers. First of all, the petition is completely non-binding – it only “urges” Roger Goodell and the National (dramatic pause) Football League to “endorse a name change.” It only carries what I believe in legal circles is called “the force of moral suasion” – and given that these are politicians we’re talking about here, I don’t know how much moral force that really carries.

And second, there’s the matter of who signed it. There’s an online copy of the petition (you can take a gander at it here), showing specifically who put their John Hancocks on this piece. I recognized a lot of the names immediately … but I also realized a lot of big senatorial names weren’t on it. And the more I started looking, the more I started suspecting what might be missing …

To make a long story short, I broke out a map of the United States that I keep on my PC (because I have this thing about maps) and divided each state in half to account for each one having two U.S. senators. Then I colored in the portions pertaining to the senators that signed the petition, using the traditional TV-news color scheme – red for Republicans, blue for Democrats. And here’s what I came up with:

Senate breakdown on Redskins petition

The teal in Maine is for Angus King, traditionally a Democrat but who was elected to the Senate as an independent. The green in Vermont is for Bernie Sanders, a Socialist. (Both usually caucus with the Democrats, for what that’s worth.) But what you don’t see here is a single pixel of red. Of the 55 Democrats or independents currently in the Senate, 49 signed the petition. Of the 45 Republicans, zero – not even from states with significant numbers of First Nations people, like Arizona, South Dakota and Oklahoma. So there is clearly no bipartisan push to change the name (which would have helped a lot in the “moral suasion” department).

So what can we glean from all this? What does it really mean? There are a few possibilities:

  • It may just be an election-year ploy. 2014 is not shaping up to be a great year for the Democrats – analysts at places such as FiveThirtyEight have speculated that they could easily lose their majority in the Senate come November. This petition could be an attempt by Senate Dems to cry “hey, nonwhite voters – we’re the ones who have been pushing for civil rights for the past 50 years! Don’t forget us at the polls!”
  • It may be an indication that the Republican Party now has its head so far up its colon in regards to racial issues that it can’t even see obvious slurs right in front of them. I’m not prepared to go that far.
  • It’s interesting to note that, while Virginia has two Democratic senators (Mark Warner and Tim Kaine), neither of them signed. While the team name includes “Washington” and they play their home games in Landover, Maryland, the team’s offices are in Ashburn, Virginia. That might be a coincidence … but I wouldn’t bet on it.
  • I think the most likely (or at least the primary; all of these could be factors) explanation is that the idea of changing the name is reaching critical public mass – enough so that at least one side of the U.S. Senate felt the need to say something about it. After all, the name has been around since 1936, and is backed by billions of dollars in marketing clout (both the NFL’s and team owner Daniel Snyder’s). It’s taken some time for public objection to the name to develop and coalesce, just as it took decades for public objection to the racism of Don Imus or Donald Sterling to coalesce. But when it did, the outcry was enough to spike Imus’ radio show and press the NBA to give Sterling the heave-ho. Imus’ comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team and Sterling’s recorded gripes to his “personal assistant” were the straws that broke the camels’ backs – but the weight had been building for a while.

I know there has been a study or two claiming that the name “Redskins” isn’t considered racist by Native Americans. I also know those studies are a minority among all the polls that have been done, and their methodologies have been thoroughly discredited. The only reason the name is still in place is the general recalcitrance of Snyder, a man who’s known to be stubborn in numerous areas. But like George Wallace crying “segregation forever!” Snyder is fighting the cultural tide, and that rarely leads to a long-term victory. The Cleveland Indians haven’t changed their name (yet), but while they deny it publicly, they’ve been quietly phasing out their silly “Chief Wahoo” insignia. Numerous universities, including big-timers like Stanford and St. John’s, have gotten rid of similar nicknames for their athletic programs. And another Washington pro team (the former Bullets) changed a name that they felt was publicly objectionable, and have survived. Heck, Snyder & Co. could even use this as a marketing opportunity – not by setting up a bogus foundation, but by selling a snootful of jerseys, helmets, T-shirts, beer koozies, neckties, etc. with the new name and logo.

This isn’t about “political correctness” (a term that nowadays is only used by people objecting to what they perceive as it). It’s about not ticking off the people who buy your merchandise, and about not going out of your way to unnecessarily offend large groups of people. What the Senate petition indicates is that public opinion is not at the level where Snyder or the NFL will be forced to change the team’s name … but it is headed in that direction. In all honesty, they might want to avoid a further PR nightmare, and beat the rush.

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