Rick Reilly’s No Good, Very Bad Defense of the Washington Football team’s nickname

Dave Zirin has penned a rip-roaring attack on ESPN’s Rick Reilly for Reilly’s defense of the DC eleven’s nickname.

Reilly’s main lines of defense are:

1) It’s become expected that one must attack the nickname, and “every other sports writer in America” is forswearing it .

2) at least some Native Americans, including Reilly’s father-in-law and some high school teams representing predominantly Native American school districts, have embraced what Robert Lipsyte calls the “R-word.”

3) this fact pattern, according to Reilly, means that it’s white America calling for the elimination of the name, not Native Americans.

I think there’s actually an interesting discussion to be had about the extent to which the name offends Native Americans. But the general principle – that the sensibilities of the affected group should be paramount in these discussions is clearly appropriate. Zirin rightly criticizes Reilly for ignoring all of the activism by Native American groups themselves to oppose Native American mascots. As Professor Ellen Staurowsky has pointed out:

More than 100 organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association, Native American Journalists Association, the Society of Indian Psychologists, and the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, have supported the discontinuation of these images on the grounds that they encourage stereotyping that negatively impacts the health and well-being of American Indians in schools and workplaces.

So, Reilly’s attempt to position himself as some stalwart truth-teller defending the right of Native Americans to call themselves what they want is the kind faux “courage” that one expects to find among the Rush Limbaughs of the world. Furthermore, as Zirin points out, only three “mainstream” sports writers – Peter King, Christine Brennan and Bill Simmons – have decided to disavow the name. I’d point out that others are joining in, including Slate, Mother Jones, the Kansas City Star and Zirin himself, who has developed a significant platform. But this is very far from Reilly’s preposterous assertion that “every other sportswriter” has decided to eschew the R word.

Though there has been sustained and growing activism among Native American groups to drop use of Native American imagery and mascots by sports teams, there does not seem to be a consensus among Native Americans more generally about the issue. Paul Woody, writing earlier this year in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, interviewed three tribal leaders in Virginia who informed him that they were not bothered by the nickname and neither were most of their tribal members.  Woody, incidentally, says he would prefer the name be dropped.

Reilly cites a poll, conducted a decade ago by the National Annenberg Survey, that asked specifically about Washington’s team name: “As a Native American, do you find that name offensive or does it not bother you?” NInety percent said they were not offended.

It’s only one poll (Update: and here are some serious flaws in it) and one presumes that the result would be different today, as much more attention has been devoted to the issue in recent years. Whether a majority would now say they find the name offensive is, however, far from clear. This is not necessarily the only criterion to use in determining how the issue should be dealt with. But it certainly seems relevant. (though to be clear, that not every Native American finds it offensive doesn’t invalidate the intensity of feeling and legitimate sense of grievance among those who do)

(further update: the link above that deconstructs the Annenberg poll includes this quote from Adam Clymer, who was in charge of that poll:

“Look, let’s suppose my numbers were 100 percent right, that 90 percent of American Indians were okay with it and that the people on the other end of the phone were actually what they said they were,” he said. “Given that, what if you had a dinner party and you invited 10 people. And by the end of the night it’s pretty clear that nine of them have had a tremendous time and really enjoyed the food and company. But one of them you managed to completely insult and demean, to the point where people around them noticed and it was uncomfortable. So, ask yourself: Were you a social success that night?”)

Reilly would have been on firmer ground had he a) done a little more research and b) suggested that a lack of consensus among Native Americans is at least germane to a discussion of whether Washington should change its nickname. Slate’s David Plotz, in explaining that publication’s decision to stop publishing the name, noted that its history is somewhat more ambiguous and less offensive than is sometimes acknowledged.

However, Plotz wrote:

But time passes, the world changes, and all of a sudden a well-intentioned symbol is an embarrassment. Here’s a quick thought experiment: Would any team, naming itself today, choose “Redskins” or adopt the team’s Indian-head logo? Of course it wouldn’t. At the time the team was named, America was barely a generation past the Indian Wars, and at the beginning of the golden age of the Western. American Indians were powerful symbolically, but had a limited role in American public life. The 80 years since have witnessed the triumph of the civil rights movement and a powerful effort by American Indians to reclaim their identity and win self-determination. Americans think differently about race and the language of race than we did 80 years ago.

For Reilly, this appears to be a lamentable state of affairs. That times have changed, and what was acceptable in 1933 isn’t necessarily OK in 2013 seems to be, for Reilly, nothing but white  guilt and a distasteful imposition of political correctness. Since an overwhelming majority of fans (including, one may confidently presume, white fans) do, in fact, support the name and the number of writers and publications who have decided no longer to use it remains negligible, Reilly’s column comes across as an especially delusional and unself-aware exercise in misplaced moral valor.

More Updates: Lots folks are skewering Reilly. Here’s Robert Wheel at Kissing Suzy Kolber on the last line in Reilly’s column, which compares non Native Americans’ desire to see the name changed to putting Native Americans on reservations:

The railroading of Native Americans into reservations upon removing them from their lands is one of our nation’s biggest embarrassments.  Reilly uses it as a fucking punch line.  He’s proven himself so insensitive throughout the article that it almost doesn’t shock by the end, but this is the equivalent of making sharecropping or concentration camps into kickers for a column.  Not only should Reilly be fired, but his editor should probably be fired for even letting this come to light.

Chris Greenberg, at Huffington Post, has more (including the link to the article that deconstructed the Annenberg poll and Wheel’s piece).

One suspects that ESPN’s Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, who wrote about the name controversy in the above-linked column, may be called upon soon to devote a separate entry just to Reilly’s piece.


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