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Washington ponders 'Redskins,' by any other name

From afar, Washington may seem wholly consumed with the hyperpartisan political football of the U.S. government shutdown.

But up close, the capital is also finding time for do battle over the politics of football itself, as scrutiny intensifies on the unfortunately named Washington Redskins.

The controversy over the NFL team's name goes back decades. But defenders of the "Redskins" must be suffering shell shock battle fatige operatonal exhaustion post traumatic stress disorder today as they watch momentum for change increase with each passing day.

In August, Slate magazine announced it will stop using the name altogether, saying, "the world changes, and all of a sudden a well-intentioned symbol is an embarrasment." A day later, Mother Jones joined the name-quashing movement, noting it might still sassily refer to the team as the "the Washington (Redacted)."

Then The Onion climbed aboard, with full satirical snark: "Report: Redskins' Name Only Offensive If you Think About What It Means."

But all that pales against the frenzy afoot now, in the wake of President Barack Obama's weekend remark that he would "think about changing" the name if he owned the team.

"I don't think there are any Redskins fans that mean offense," Obama told the Associated Press in an interview published Saturday. "I've got to say if I were the owner of the team and I knew there was a name on my team -- even if it had a storied history -- that was offending a sizable group of people, I'd think about changing it."

Obama's words unleashed a torrent of applause and fury from some of Washington's brightest political observers. Dana Millbank, writing in the Washington Post, called on NFL owners meeting in DC Tuesday to ponder a series of other common racial epithets in a column that suggested the name "Redskins" will soon be discarded enter history's dustbit.

Rich Lowry led the the pushback from conservative commenters, writing in the National Review that the Redskins' real problem is a nickname "offensive to American liberals." The word may be "an anachronism," said Lowry, "but it is a harmless one."

Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who bought the team in 1999, has insisted he will never change the name. And on Monday his attorney Lanny Davis held to that position, releasing a statement insisting, "We at the Redskins respect everyone.

"But like devoted fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks, from President Obama's hometown, we love our team and its name, and, like those fans, we do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group," Davis wrote.

Many point to the precedent of basketball's Washington Wizards -- nee Bullets -- who underwent a less ballistic renaming after late owner Abe Pollen returned from the funeral of assasinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin.

While the team's ownership is showing no sign of budging, the NFL itself seems more mindful of broader brand damage as the controversy expands. The league confirmed it is ready to sit down with the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, which is leading a national campaign at changethemascot.org.

Twitter is studded as ever with great snark as the issue roils. Among the finer examples: "In order to avoid upsetting a majority of Americans, the Washington Redskins are changing their name to the Maryland Redskins." Another poster suggested that following historical precedent, the Redskins were ready to sign a treaty commiting to change their name -- and ready also not to honour it.

If the "Redskins" days really are numbered, what might they then become? One of the more interesting suggestions involves the team actually retaining its native imagery, rebranded as the "Washington Americans."

"The point is that it's about context," Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, told USA Today. 

"If you called them the Americans and had a contemporary native image, that's inclusive. That's much different from singling us out and calling us by that name and having the image of a stereotypical native American from the 19th century, as though we're not still around."

Mitch Potter is the Toronto Star's Washington Bureau Chief, his third foreign posting after previous assignments to London and Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites


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