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Phillips: Changing the Redskins name is right, so why does this feel so wrong?
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Phillips: Changing the Redskins name is right, so why does this feel so wrong?

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Redskins vs. Cowboys football

A Washington Redskins flag is waved to celebrate a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, September 15, 2019.

In 2002, the Masters golf tournament aired without sponsors, as the Augusta National Golf Club came under fire for not allowing female members.

Eventually the protest faded, and a decade later, the club quietly admitted two female members.

I’d long assumed the Washington Redskins football team would follow a similar path, especially after the national controversy over the name died down in 2016. A new identity, rolled out quietly — perhaps even paired with a new stadium.

Instead, this is how it ends, with owner Dan Snyder checkmated not by external forces but internal ones. Instead of a Bob Costas halftime editorial, the pressure is coming from the league, its corporate partners and even the team’s minority shareholders. Snyder can’t change that channel.

Changing the name is a necessary thing to do, and has been for some time.

And yet ...

The name change is presumably taking place to respect the Native American community and to take a stand against denigrating a group of people.

In practice, it feels like that’s one of the last things on anybody’s mind. For the NFL owners, this is about delivering a rebuke to Snyder for running a storied franchise into the ground over the past two decades. And for corporations, this is a layup of a press release, one that will keep them from having to address the true crisis of the moment — police brutality in America.

Every minute we spend debating what to do with the team’s name, and every segment on ESPN discussing what name to use, is a minute not devoted to the urgent issues at hand.

The current unrest began with the unsettling video of George Floyd being suffocated at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

So far the response from corporate America has been removing “Gone with the Wind” from streaming services and advocating for the renaming of Washington’s football team.

Meanwhile, the City of Richmond has gone through three police chiefs, who collectively have overseen the use of chemical irritants on protestors at least four times, including once at 7:40 p.m, 20 minutes ahead of curfew.

Civil rights protests seem to happen on a regular cycle in the United States, and prioritizing superficial fixes over systemic change merely resets that clock.

I’d like to believe that we are capable of multitasking, of having two related discussions at the same time. I fear that the name debate, in reality, will suck up a lot of the available oxygen in the room.

We’ve heard from a number of Black athletes in these pages over the past month. Many have described harrowing interactions with law enforcement. Many have called for comprehensive reform of policing.

In the NFL, a league where 70% of the players are Black, just 12.5% of head coaches are.

For major change to happen, the focus must stay, laser-like, on the issue of dismantling systemic racism. Changing the offensive name of a football team is one part of that, but not when it detracts from the other issues at hand.

There is also reason to believe the name change has little to do with political correctness, and more to do with how dysfunction in Washington has hit the NFL owners in the place they value most — the pocketbook.

Snyder has taken one of the league’s marquee teams, a perennial television draw and merchandising powerhouse, and turned it into the East Coast version of the Cleveland Browns.

No Redskins player was in the top 50 in jersey sales league-wide this year. The only games the team sold out were against the Patriots and Cowboys. And most notably, Washington will play no prime-time games in 2020.

For a league looking to cash in on a new television deal soon, that’s not good. The biggest markets and most famous teams drive those TV deals.

It’s all but impossible to imagine Snyder being forced to sell. The other owners would be too afraid to set the precedent that someday they could be forced to give up their seat at the table.

But they can make life difficult for Snyder, and in pressuring him to change the name, they’re chipping away at what he holds dear — the franchise’s storied history.

It feels like very little of this is being done in consultation with Native American groups. They should have a voice on how they feel comfortable being portrayed, or if they want the plug pulled entirely.

There’s nothing wrong with doing the right thing. But the timing here suggests that this name change could end up setting social justice causes back, rather than moving them forward.

mphillips@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6546

@michaelpRTD

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