Washington's team needs a new name

WASHINGTON — I hate politically correct orthodoxy, that reflexive tendency to corral thought and language into neat little "good" and "bad" boxes. To me, it's a kind of social disorder, a self-imposed censorship that often stymies honest exchange, ascribes malice to those who "misspeak" and tends to create privileged classes of speakers. There are those — in this day and age, most often minorities and women — who are allowed to cross a line and those who wouldn't even dream of tiptoeing up to it. It explains the left's defense of Justice Sonia Sotomayor's prideful embrace of the "wise Latina" and what would have undoubtedly been a severe rebuke of, say, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., if he had dared assert that white male judges were equipped to make better decisions because of their life experiences.

I tend to roll my eyes or put on full display my Cuban-Gallega temper when confronted with yet another straitjacketing mandate. (I'm not being stereotypical here; I'm telling the truth about myself. Just ask my spouse.) Which brings us to the name of our local football team.

I have long hated the Redskins — the team, not the name. That should come as no surprise to anyone who knows that I grew up in Miami in the 1970s during the Dolphins' glory days. The Dolphins beat the Redskins, 14-7, in Super Bowl VII to cap a 17-0 perfect season. The Redskins returned the favor in 1983, in Super Bowl XVII, by whipping the Dolphins by a score of 27-17. I've never forgiven the team or the town.

But I never thought twice about the Redskins name until I moved here. Every few years or so, it seems, a movement gathers to force a renaming of the team. The argument: The term Redskins is offensive to Native Americans, a throwback, according to some sources, to a time when Caucasian bounty hunters presented scalps — or "redskins" — to prove their success in slaying the enemy. Team owners, including current boss Daniel Snyder, have refused to budge, arguing that no offense is meant and that the franchise could lose millions if forced to adopt a new name or logo.

Just last week, a group of Native Americans asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take their case challenging the team's patent on the Redskins name. I hope the justices agree to hear it, and I hope the challengers prevail.

I can sense a lot of eye-rolling out there among my conservative friends. Let me explain. First, I think the challengers are right on the law. Statutes governing patents stipulate that no patent shall be issued if it contains "matter which may disparage ... persons, living or dead.. or bring them into contempt, or disrepute." I don't see how the term Redskins even comes close to passing the smell test.

The law also allows a challenge to an offensive patent to be brought "at any time." The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether a lower court erred by dismissing the Native American challenge as having been filed too late. It makes sense for the justices to take up the matter to resolve a conflict among several federal appeals courts.

The law aside, I also believe that changing the name could be a smart thing to do. Washington's professional men's basketball team suffered no discernible long-term harm when owner Abe Pollin changed its name in 1997 from the violence-tinged Bullets to the Wizards. Attendance spiked (in part because of the opening of the new arena downtown) and has remained reasonably steady since, despite some miserable losing seasons. The team was also able to cash in on sales of Wizards merchandise.

More important, dropping the Redskins moniker would be the right thing to do. I'm certain that offending Native Americans is the furthest thing from the minds of fans or franchise. I suspect the truth is that most of us simply don't think about it. We've become comfortable with the word, complacent. And that has made us unwilling to challenge our own thinking or our assumptions about whether it might be offensive to those whom it describes. But can you imagine anyone in their right mind today trying to coin the name Washington Wetbacks? How about California Chinks? Or Kentucky Krauts? It wouldn't take a legal challenge from Hispanics, Chinese or Germans to put the kibosh on those ideas. It shouldn't take a lawsuit now to bring an end to an such an unfortunate and hurtful name.

The writer works for The Washington Post's editorial page.

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