Some weeks ago, I was talking with a few neighbors of mine here in Montgomery County, Maryland. They’re older. Somehow Washington football club owner Dan Snyder came up in conversation. Turns out a few of them had kids who’d gone to high school with Snyder. Any juicy stories, I wondered. They shook their heads: No. In fact, they told me, when Snyder took over the team, and it said in the paper where and when he graduated, they asked their children. No one even remembered a Dan Snyder.
That conversation explained a lot to me. He’s not a raging reactionary and A-league asshole. Well, he might be both of those things, but let’s say that he’s not chiefly a raging reactionary or A-league asshole. He’s chiefly a forgettable nonentity who got rich and figured out a way to buy the team he cheered for when he was a child. So this whole thing is a nerdy little boy’s fantasy. If you’re Snyder’s age (born 1964), you grew up going with your friends over to the schoolyard that’s about a short par five up the road from where I’m typing these words pretending to be Billy Kilmer and Larry Brown and Roy Jefferson and Chris Hanburger. And to you, the Redskins name was drenched in glory. Changing the team name would amount not merely to capitulating to liberal-harpie critics; it would take the fantasy he’s living and kill it cold.
So he’ll do everything he humanly can to preserve the offensive name, including this ridiculous initiative he announced this week: the creation of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Original Americans. Love that. If it’s a good enough name for his foundation, maybe it’s a good name for the team, no? Better still, reverse the question, as other commentators already have: If the name Redskins is not offensive, why on earth did he not call this entity the Washington Redskins Redskins Foundation?
If you haven’t read the cloying letter Snyder wrote to fans announcing all this, you really owe it to yourself. It features every annoying tick of corporate-speak, many of them several times. Snyder traveled (to visit Native American groups). He listened. He learned. Oh, did he learn. It’s not easy being an Original American out there. “In the heart of America’s Indian country, poverty is everywhere,” he writes. “That’s not acceptable. We have so much, yet too many Native Americans have so little.”
Look. He’s handed out 3,000 winter coats to tribes. That’s roughly 3,000 more than I’ve donated, so anything this outfit does to ameliorate the difficulty of reservation life is to be, to some extent, applauded. And there’s little question that in the land of the free, Native Americans have more to worry about than the name of a football team (a point Snyder makes, and makes). But that reality and a million winter coats can’t change the fact that “Redskins” is indefensible as a name in this day and age.
Snyder will be judged either as the pouty intransigent who swam against history’s obvious tide or as the visionary who removed a horrible blot from the escutcheon of a franchise.
As I’ve written before, Snyder could be a real leader here. He can choose. Not to overdramatize, because I do know the difference between a racist sports nickname and a top-to-bottom racist society, but Snyder can be either P.W. Botha, or he can be F.W. DeKlerk. Botha, you’ll recall, was the next-to-last state president of apartheid, and he opposed black-majority rule. DeKlerk knew it was inevitable and helped usher in a change that, one has no doubt, killed his boyhood fantasy cold, too. But he knew it was right, and he knew it was time. And he provided a quality of leadership that made a lot of resisters accept the new reality.
Snyder can do the same. The name is going to change, and within a few years. And 20 or 30 years from now, it will be embarrassing that the old name lasted this long. When that time comes, Snyder will be judged either as the pouty intransigent who swam against history’s obvious tide or as the visionary who removed a horrible blot from the escutcheon of a franchise that came into this controversy, let us not forget, with the worst historical record on race probably of any team in any of the major three sports (slower to integrate, by three years, than even the lamentable Boston Red Sox).
I always thought Ari Fleischer and Lanny Davis (two of the “experts” advising Snyder on PR) were oily. And we always knew that former Sen. George Allen, another adviser whose brother is the GM and whose father is the famous former head coach, is kind of a racist. But I never thought these three were either stupid or outright swindlers, until I read Snyder’s open letter and started wondering about how much he must be paying them to get this kind of advice. Dan: Forget these people. Hire someone who’ll tell you not what you want to hear, but what you don’t want to hear. Then you’ll see that modern adult life is life, not your boyhood fantasy, and maybe people will remember you. Fondly that is.