Redskins Name Change

Commentator Frank Deford talks about the tradition of naming sports teams after American Indians. The practice is prevalent in hundreds of high school and college teams. But Deford says the most offensive example is the Washington Redskins of the National Football League and that it's time for the franchise to change its name.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's common for sports teams to take their nicknames from animals--the Bulls, Bears, Bison, the Cougars. Consider the elementary school where I went, the Woodpeckers. There's another source of nicknames that commentator Frank Deford finds objectionable.

FRANK DEFORD:

Redmen, Indians, Braves, Warriors, Chieftains, even Savages, plus the specific--Seminoles, Choctaws, Utes, Chippewas, Illini and Sioux. These are all nicknames of NCAA colleges that are derived from an American Indian past. Moreover, nearly 2,500 secondary schools boast the same sort of monikers, not to mention the best-known professional teams--Redskins, Indians, Braves, Chiefs, Warriors.

Even though those of us newer to this continent spent a great deal of time fighting, killing, even mastering the peoples native to the land, we conquerors have always held this bizarre desire to name our teams after our old foes, but now at last, the NCAA has begun review of the situation with an eye toward considering whether it indeed might possess the authority to force member schools to change their rather dubious nicknames.

Of them all, the most offensive is Redskins which, of course, just happens to title what Forbes magazine calls the most valuable sports franchise in America. It's important to understand that Redskin does not refer to skin color. It's not like, `Well, I'm a whiteskin and Shaquille O'Neal is a blackskin.' A `redskin' was a scalp taken by Americans as bounty. The red in `redskin' is blood red, but the nation's capital's football team adamantly holds on to its name as we hear in the proud old team anthem "Hail to the Redskins."

(Soundbite of "Hail to the Redskins")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Braves on the warpath, fight with all you can.

DEFORD: I must admit to a little of what we used to call consciousness raising here, too. I always thought, `Well, surely no one can object to such rather generic terms like Warriors, Braves and Chiefs,' but Native American activists I've spoken to believe that the use of such nicknames and the display of dancing costumed mascots who amuse the crowds at games manage to perpetuate the Hollywood version of Indians that we all have pressed into our minds. So long as we reflexively think of Indians as perpetual fighters in war paint, we cannot so easily connect with the real Native Americans of today, understand their plight, appreciate how desperately they battle poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction and a general hopelessness that results in such a high suicide rate. Sport nicknames may seem like a small, even foolish thing, but their visibility helps keep Indians trapped in history, cartoon figures frozen on the warpath.

Of course, those who defend the appropriation of the old nicknames say it's supposed to honor Indian tradition. Sorry. Never did white man speak with such forked tongue. And, indeed, there are some Indians themselves who think the nicknames and mascots are respectful. I've even spoken to some such tribal elders. But certainly the NCAA is right in trying to address the issue even if the Washington Redskins and other professional teams must remain insensitive.

The question of whether or not the majority should utterly rule is one we've been struggling with in the Senate these past few weeks, but surely no American majority should ever lack the courtesy to insult other people by stealing their very own names and turning them against them.

INSKEEP: Those are the comments of Frank Deford. His newest book is "The Old Ball Game," about baseball in America at the start of the 20th century. Frank joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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