The Pulse: Calling them by their name

Posted: May 27, 2013

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder refuses to change the name of his team. Should we do it for him? More specifically, should the media no longer recognize the official designation? A former chair of the Federal Communications Commission recently told me the answer is yes.

"I would like to suggest something to you: Why don't you in your own job think about not using the derogatory name that Mr. Snyder has chosen?" Reed Hundt asked. "Why not? Why doesn't it start on a person-by-person basis? Why don't people just say, 'You know what, standards have changed.' "

Hundt chaired the FCC from 1993-97 at the behest of President Bill Clinton and is perhaps best known for having prosecuted claims of indecency against radio's Howard Stern, self-proclaimed King of All Media. Now Hundt's nemesis is the King of All Redskins.

Snyder has been under increasing pressure to alter a moniker some believe to be racist. In March, a bill was introduced in Congress that would cancel the team's trademark of the term redskin. The bill was followed by hearings before three judges on the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. While that challenge is ongoing, Snyder remains unbowed, recently telling USA Today: "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER - you can use caps."

Which is why Hundt is suggesting a different approach, namely that broadcast journalists take the matter into their own hands. Through his vision, I see Howard Eskin reporting, "The Eagles lost to Washington, 21-10." By this logic, maybe Vai Sikahema will someday announce, "The Flyers defeated Chicago, 3-1." Or imagine Angelo Cataldi complaining on WIP-FM about the "Nittany Lions" but never referencing the "Fighting Irish"?

Hundt recently wrote in the Washington Post as if he were FCC chairman again ("only for a day") asking Snyder to change his team's name "so that broadcasters no longer would have to describe it using a name they would never use in any other context."

"Cultural standards evolve. ... Whatever we might have said decades ago, none of us now would call a Native American by the epithet used to describe Snyder's team," Hundt wrote. "The FCC clearly has the authority to investigate whether broadcasters' use of derogatory names to describe sports teams and players comports with the public interest."

When I spoke to Hundt about his Post essay, he offered me his alternative approach, noting that "broadcasters have led in establishing, in both words and shows, what are suitable standards for our culture. As an example, he cited changes in the treatment of African Americans from Amos and Andy to The Cosby Show.

"So the time has come to take the same progressive steps toward tolerance and apply them to Native Americans," he suggested to me. And he thinks the power of the FCC could be used as leverage to bring about change.

"You know, if I were the FCC chair right now, I would think very seriously about having an open meeting with broadcasters and saying, 'Mr. Snyder can call the team whatever he wants,' " Hundt said. " 'He can put up a sign on his personal property, but you all do not have to use derogatory names in your broadcast. Do you agree?' Just ask them, 'Do you agree with that?' "

I disagree and told him so. Regardless of whether Snyder should change the name, I am troubled by the idea that the FCC, by its own subjective definition of what is offensive, would be able to make that kind of a pronouncement. Hundt responded that he was only proposing that the question be asked: "I don't believe that if you're in the government you aren't allowed to ask questions."

But, as I told Hundt, by raising such a question, the FCC could have a chilling effect. When the FCC holds broadcast licensure in its hands, a mere inquiry from the government would change nomenclature. How long after the FCC "asks questions" about the name of Washington's NFL franchise will it be before similar questions are raised about WMMR-FM's Pierre Robert playing a song by the Sex Pistols, or if it's really necessary to reference the opening of the film Hangover III by its title?

Besides, in this case, it's not at all clear to me that history demands a rebranding.

In the fall of 2005, Ives Goddard, a senior linguist at the Smithsonian Institution, looked at the derivation of redskin and concluded that Native Americans themselves developed the term.

"This terminology was developed by Native Americans to label categories of the new ethnic and political reality they confronted with the coming of the Europeans," Goddard wrote in the European Review of Native American Studies after a seven-month investigation. "The actual origin of the word is entirely benign and reflects more positive aspects of relations between Indians and whites."

Still, Dan Snyder may someday have a change of heart. If and when he does, broadcasters should follow suit, but not until then.


Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124.

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