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October 30, 2013

Jim Bailey: What's in a nickname? Redskins controversy just tip of the iceberg

It has surfaced before. And no doubt Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s latest vow to keep the team’s nickname won’t be the last word in the commotion over whether that and similar designations are offensive to Native Americans – among others.

Team nicknames and mascots have abounded for decades that came out of the Native American traditions across the country. We have not only the Redskins but the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland (and Indianapolis and Anderson) Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco Warriors and Chicago Blackhawks, to name the most prominent, along with dozens of colleges and hundreds of high schools that use variations of Indian names.

Of those, a case could be made that Redskins may be potentially the most derogatory, a term that often has been used in the same sense as the N-word in referring to African-Americans. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says it is “very offensive and should be avoided.” This despite its sometime use as a term of familiarity or endearment by many Native Americans.

History tells us the Washington Redskins got their nickname in 1932 when original owner George Preston Marshall chose to honor head coach William “Lone Star” Dietz, who was known as an Indian. Later, though, it was reported Dietz got into trouble for falsely misrepresenting himself as an Indian to avoid the draft.

Opposition to such nicknames is usually spearheaded by activists, as if that is any big surprise. Do most American Indians really care? Not according to one recent poll that resulted in 90 percent of the respondents essentially saying they couldn’t care less.

The NCAA has been pressuring its member schools to get rid of nicknames and mascots that relate to Native American culture. And National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell said recently, “If we are offending one person, we need to be listening.”

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