Skip to main content

Obama is right about 'Redskins'

By Roxanne Jones, Special to CNN
updated 2:20 PM EDT, Tue October 8, 2013
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
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT