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
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT