Skip to main content

Obama is right about 'Redskins'

By Roxanne Jones, Special to CNN
October 8, 2013 -- Updated 1820 GMT (0220 HKT)
The Redskins adopted that name in 1933, when the team was still in Boston.
The Redskins adopted that name in 1933, when the team was still in Boston.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama suggested Washington Redskins consider changing the team name
  • Roxanne Jones: As a sports fan, the president can weigh in -- and he's right
  • She says Redskins name is hurtful and damaging to Native Americans
  • Jones: It's time to get on the right side of history and change the 80-year-old name

Editor's note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women's topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete," (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies.

(CNN) -- The audience was tense. Tempers were heated. Tears were seen and blows were nearly thrown. We needed a referee.

This was not the pre-fight press conference weigh-in for a Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao boxing match. It was a panel discussion between African-American and Native American journalists from across the country to consider whether the Washington Redskins name was racist. But the conversation at the Unity Journalists of Color convention, which included more than 6,000 media professionals, got nowhere.

Obama on the Redskins

Black journalists accused their Native American counterparts of showing racist videos during the panel of ranting black fans cheering for their beloved football team, including extensive video of the team's then-beloved, now maligned Chief Zee, the African-American man (Zema Williams) who's been the team's unofficial mascot for 35 years.

Roxanne Jones
Roxanne Jones

"Black people are not the only Washington fans in the stadium," I argued then. "Where are the other fan faces? And why is this a racial issue?" Our Native American peers yelled back, a few of them in tears, that we were being insensitive and ignorant for not understanding that the Redskin name was hurtful and damaging to their community.

Nothing changed. Everyone left the workshop insulted and insistent they were on the right side of the debate, including myself. And we never found common ground. That was nearly 20 years ago.

So it was refreshing earlier this week to hear President Obama, the nation's commander in chief and a sports fan, weigh in saying he'd think about changing the name if he were the owner of the team.

Tribe seeks to force NFL Redskins name change

"I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things. ... I don't want to detract from the wonderful Redskins fans that are here. They love their team and rightly so," the president said to The Associated Press.

I thought back to that Unity meeting and knew his words rang true. And I remembered several of my colleagues who, over the years, have tried to get me or others in the newsroom to feel their pain. And honestly, I just never gave it enough thought.

But no longer can I justify my years of indifference to the sports moniker. The name must change. Let's toss it in the trash heap along with other now offensive -- but once widely used -- monikers such as Sambo, darky, dago and kike.

And if you or team owner Daniel Snyder, who insists he'll never change the team name, are a bit insulted, that's the whole point. It is exactly what my Native American colleagues struggled to tell us for as long as I can remember.

Predictably, many Redskins fans are livid that the president would jump into this fight. They are hypocrites. They're not the only people who can have an opinion about this matter.

U.S. politicians are sports fans, too. Some of them have been quite engaged with popular sports conversations. President Ronald Reagan brought "The Gipper" to the White House. Obama participates in the annual March Madness bracket frenzy.

For any fan, sports are among the most uplifting things about life. It's the one place we can escape the worries in the grownup world and enjoy our childlike enthusiasm for the games. None of that feeling goes away with a name change in Washington.

Supporters of keeping the team name can see only tradition and honor of the franchise. Some are defensive -- rightfully, I believe -- about anyone saying they are somehow intentionally being malicious.

Lanny J. Davis, an attorney for the Redskins and an Obama supporter, said in an e-mail to the media that fans don't intend to "disparage or disrespect" anyone. "The name 'Washington Redskins' is 80 years old. It's our history and legacy and tradition."

What else could he say? He is paid by the team. But he must know that his argument just makes no sense. The football team's glorious history may indeed stretch back 80 wonderful years, but what intelligent person, or even a diehard football fan like me, could seriously argue that 80 years of entertaining football history could ever compare to the thousands of years that the original Americans have inhabited this land?

It's time to get on the right side of American history.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roxanne Jones.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT