Football Team’s Name Is No Business of Congress or the President

My 16-year-old daughter is convinced it is ridiculous to call Romeo and Juliet a love story. After all, the “lovers” are really infatuated teenagers, and their tale is one of senseless violence and tragedy. But that said, Juliet did pose an excellent question worth pondering today: “What’s in a name?”

And yes, I am referring to the Washington Redskins.

Back in May, 10 Members of Congress wrote to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Redskins owner Dan Snyder asking them to “to disavow the usage of racial slurs” by changing the name of Washington, D.C.’s pro football franchise. Goodell responded in June with a staunch defense of the Redskins’ name.

But last week, Goodell’s position seemed to have softened. He told fans the league had to be sensitive and “see what it is we can do if we’re insulting any element of our fan base, or not our fan base for that matter.” Goodell said it’s ultimately up to Snyder. What might have made Goodell change his tune?

Some people do find the Redskins’ name offensive. The Oneida Indian Nation recently launched radio ads pushing for a name change. The tribe also commissioned a poll of 500 D.C. residents that purports to show a name change would not affect most residents’ support of the team.

So maybe Goodell is responding to pressure from the public, on whom the NFL depends to watch games and buy merchandise.

But it also may have something to do with mounting political pressure. In June, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., blasted Goodell’s response as “another attempt to justify a racial slur.” And in an Associated Press interview, President Obama himself weighed in, saying, “If I were the owner […] I’d think about changing it.[…] I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concern that people have about these things.”

Now, Juliet’s soliloquy aside, I understand names do matter – especially in the nation’s capital. Politics is rife with names and name-calling. Hawk, dove, Blue Dog, fat cat, bigot, tree-hugger, bleeding heart – the list goes on. Even names from the long past – carpetbaggers, Whigs, Founding Fathers, know-nothings –are trotted out from time to time. And there are, of course, epithets that society deems no longer appropriate.

Names matter and language changes as attitudes change. I get that. But what I don’t get – and don’t want – are federal officials using their bully pulpit to browbeat a private enterprise whose moniker meets their disapproval. Yet, unfortunately, there seems to be more of that about.

The growing influence of behavioral economists espousing a “nudging” approach to regulation has led government bureaucrats to see themselves as uniquely qualified to tell private businesses and individuals how to behave, what to sell and to whom, and how to market it (or not market it) – all in the name of “encouraging” the right behavior. We’ve seen this before, in efforts to impose “sin” taxes on alcohol, gambling and tobacco.

The Redskins are a privately held company that belongs to a trade association of 32 like-minded entities.  There are also tens of thousands of individual and corporate “shareholders” who have a financial stake in their company through their holding of season tickets that are often passed from generation to generation. If they want to change the name, that’s up to them.

But if Dan Snyder were to ask me to vote on changing the name, I’d vote no.

I was born in the nation’s capital. There are pictures of me as a young boy wearing what is now considered a “throwback” helmet – all yellow with a red “R.” I remember celebrating the last two Super Bowl championships (sadly a very, very long time ago) in Georgetown. And I suffered in silence a few weeks ago when the Packers, the team of choice for my wife and two children, steamrolled over RG III and company. So you could say I have some emotional “investment” in the franchise.

So does Snyder. Like me, he has been a big fan since he was a small boy. And if he decides it makes sense to change the name, I’ll adjust. But what I don’t want is for the federal government – through the president or members of Congress – to attempt to force such a change. Don’t these people have anything more important to do?

Of course, what I’d like even more is much a happier ending than in Romeo and Juliet—for the Redskins to win Super Bowl XLVIII.

Perchance to dream, eh?