02 October 2014

The, er, Washington NFL Team; or What Do We Do With a Tacky Name

A self-described political activist has filed a petition with the FCC to terminate a radio station when it’s license to operate comes up for renewal. 

The reason:   The station uses the word “Redskins” to describe the NFL’s Washington team.

The petition states that the term is a vulgarity.  The U.S. Patent & Trademark office canceled the Washington trademark earlier this year.  This petition wants it stamped out of the lexicon entirely. This is another version of the idiotic argument, “How dare they say that!” I bet that the guy who wants the license cancelled is sincere. But I hope that he knows that he is exaggerating for effect. 

Vulgarity?  Nah.

But let’s take a look at the term “Redskins.” In fact, the evolving ethic of respect has rendered the term, well, pretty tacky.  This isn’t the 1930 western movie era. This society continues to change. Words change meaning or impact. “Redskins” is an example.

For those who have trouble accepting that, let’s try a little experiment. Imagine that some term commonly deemed derogatory were attached to you.  For instance, I might take offense at baseball team called “The Shysters” or a football team called “The Fat Guys.” It would not matter to me what the innocent intent with which the term was chosen. It’s just disrespectful.  (Actually, I don’t think that I would care what some sports team was called. But most would. )  Even if “The Fat Guys” originated in the Fatty Arbuckle era when it was considered OK, now lots of people would be offended.

“Redskins” has become really stupid. It’s time for the Washington team to find another team name.  

We need to apply our sense of values to each concept individually.  Other American Indian names possibly may have a less negative effect. I’m OK with “Atlanta Braves.” Some disagree. That is the First Amendment in action. However, the “Cleveland Indians” is approaching tackiness. Others disagree.  Ditto.  (I usually use the term “American Indian.” Russell Means named the 60's movement the “American Indian Movement." I respect Russell Means, and I’m sorry that he’s gone.)

The FCC Chair agrees that the name is tacky, and intends to take the petition seriously.  The FCC Chair has his First Amendment rights like the rest of us.  He is perfectly welcome to conclude that it’s tacky, even vulgar.  

However, the FCC is wrong to take this notion of banning a word seriously, no matter how sincere their personal beliefs. It is not the FCC’s place to monitor language. Neither can the government impose some new standard because it is trendy.

One answer is to let the marketplace deal with the issue. In the past, reappraisals of language and ways of looking at things has operated mostly in the absence of government. It works slowly, but it works very well.  In fact, that is works slowly is the reason that it works well.  Whoever is behind the times will themselves be convinced that it is in their best interests to move along with the times.

I doubt that makers of sports apparel particularly care, but I won’t be buying “Redskins” wear.  (Warning: If you were born in 1949, you might object to what I do wear.)  They don’t care because I wasn’t going to do any of that anyway. However, when the portion of the public who are going to consider going to the games and so forth object, the team owners will listen. This is not to say that the anti–name crowd needs to shut up. Write letters to the editor.  Hell, picket games. The First Amendment certainly applies to them, too.

There is a dark footnote to any proposed FCC  action. They work for us. They are not wiser than us, they are not our mothers, and their liberty is just exactly the same as the humblest citizen. We should not react to some fellow proposing this licensing deal with with a knee-jerk conclusion that his beliefs are wrong. We should apply our sense of values.   But no government, whatever you call it, conservative, liberal, whatever, is entitled to dictate our sense of values.

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