Turns out you don’t have to be on the telephone very long with the president of St. Bonaventure University to know that there probably aren’t a lot of issues on God’s earth that couldn’t be better understood and perhaps even flat-out solved by simply checking with Sister Margaret Carney.
A native of Pittsburgh, Sister Margaret was not the president at St. Bonaventure when the school dumped its Brown Indians nickname almost a quarter century ago, but her understanding of the genesis of, fallout from and moral rectitude of that change are more than up to speed.
What I learned from Sister Margaret is that the Washington Redskins need to change their nickname immediately — to the Bonnies, or perhaps to the Friendly Wolves, which describes the current St. Bonaventure logo, both nicknames currently functioning beautifully.
I had a feeling it wasn’t that difficult.
“I understand that when you have really die-hard fans connected to symbols, language, songs, and you ask people to put that aside, you’re asking people to take an emotional attachment and put it on ice,” Sister Margaret said. “You have to make a really persuasive argument, either moral or financial, when you’re asking that.”
These kinds of arguments often take decades to be formulated and absorbed, and sometimes a few more decades to be acted upon, but it’s way past time in Washington. Surprisingly, the financial argument can be expressed pretty clearly in modern terms, which is that the rebranding of the Washington football club is a potential windfall for owner Dan Snyder, who has rarely come across anything related to the ballclub that he couldn’t charge for, such as admission to training camp. The moment the Redskins become the Redhawks or the Renegades or the Hogs or the Porkers (hey it’s Washington) or the Bravehearts (too Monty Python?) or, of course, the Bonnies, new gear and merchandise websites across the NFL will crash under the avalanche of credit card numbers.
It’s the moral argument that must handle all of the resistance as it works its way ponderously across the history of a nation made so much better by the invalidation of racial slurs.
“My understanding is that during what we call the glory days, in our rise as a basketball powerhouse, the late ’50s and early ’60s, our neighbors in the Seneca and Iroquois nations were not upset [by the Brown Indians nickname],” Sister Margaret said. “One of our Seneca tribesman friends actually painted an Indian head logo that became part of the center-court logo.
“That changed 20 years later, a change that mirrored but lagged behind the whole Civil Rights Movement. If you think about all the changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement as the quest for respect and equality gained momentum and things began to change for African-Americans, other groups began to press for similar recognition. From my research, the tipping point came in 1992, and it came from student editorializing. They were asking, ‘Are we honoring warrior spirit or contributing to an Indian stereotype?’ ”
Soon, if not soon enough, Indian nicknames were getting discarded by high schools and colleges all over the map. Curiously, Stanford still has fans, as does Miami (Ohio), as does IUP, as does St. John’s. Nothing bad happened, and plenty of good happened.
Granted, those aren’t the correct comparisons in terms of heft.
Granted, the rhetorical question, “What is so difficult about this?” does not address the moral argument.
“The dilemma for the NFL team is this: Persons who are not of a Native-American race are not the people who can decide if it’s harassment,” Sister Margaret said. “I’ve learned through all the work I’ve had to do around issues like sexual harassment, we don’t judge the individual issues by the standards of the harasser. If a person regards certain behaviors as harassment or of creating a hostile environment, you will be held liable.
“I had the opportunity to get to know the spiritual elders in the Seneca Nation and one asked if St. Bonaventure could be the location to which they could bring 17 spiritual leaders to talk about issues such as youthful suicide and alcoholism. And I can tell you, if you haven’t sat through such caucuses, you can’t begin to understand the kind of hopelessness and uprootedness they feel. They feel they’re living in a nation that’s not ready to accept them in their culture.
“So when you hear the counter argument, ‘Aw it’s just the Redskins,’ that’s white people talking.”
White People Talking was pretty much the foundation of this franchise, as it happens. It’s more than a little strange to hear the head nickname defender, Snyder himself, refer to Washington’s eight decades of tradition celebrating courage, dignity, respect, etc. Well, not exactly.
From their settlement in Washington in the late 1930s, the Redskins made it perfectly plain and perfectly overt that they would field no African-Americans. In every season between 1955 and 1962, they remained the only all-white NFL team. Finally, under pressure from the Kennedy Administration and from new NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, they decided to drastically improve the product with the addition of Bobby Mitchell.
Rozelle became an idol to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner who should now take the same kind of persuasion and clarity to Washington.
A phrase that in my view is getting too much play at the moment — the wrong side of history — is going to apply here whether the Redskins or any of the other professional, college and high school teams with the same malignant strain of branding like it or not.
The longer they resist, the harsher history will judge them.
You can’t win this argument by lamenting political correctness. It’s not that complicated.
It’s really just plain correctness.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.