Over the past few years, a number of media outlets have made the editorial choice not to publish the word "Redskin" when referring to Washington's professional football team. OTM producer Chris Neary has the story of one Pennsylvania paper that stopped using the word.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet another Super Bowl sidebar. This one involves a PSA produced by the National Congress of American Indians. It argued that the name of the Washington NFL team, the Redskins, is a word Native Americans would never use.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MAN: Unyielding, strong, indomitable, Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t -
BOB GARFIELD: That thing is a picture of the Redskins helmet. A few media outlets have already decided to drop the term, reasoning that it is, at best, offensive to Native Americans and, at worst, a slur not much different from the N word. OTM Producer Chris Neary has the story of one of those publications.
CHRIS NEARY: The debate over whether the Washington Redskins should retain that name got supercharged last October, when President Obama made a tepid statement about it.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’ve got to say if I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team, even if it had a story in history that was offending a, a sizeable group of people, I’d, I’d think – I’d think about changing it.
CHRIS NEARY: A few high-profile journalists have staked out stronger positions through the years – Bob Costas, ESPN’s Steven A. Smith and Editor Gillian McGoldrick.
GILLIAN McGOLDRICK: [PAUSE] I used to do a bunch of like the
CYO stuff. I do like my church youth group. I work at a bakery, and I sell water ice too. [LAUGHS]
CHRIS NEARY: And tell me how old you are and what high school you go to.
GILLIAN McGOLDRICK: I am 17, I go to Neshaminy High School.
CHRIS NEARY: McGoldrick is the editor-in-chief of Neshaminy High School Playwickian. That’s Lenape Indian for “meeting place of turkeys.” In October, the paper’s editors took a vote and ran an editorial titled, “Why We Won’t Publish the ‘R’ Word.” They decided the “R” word was racist and, quote, “very much so.”
GILLIAN McGOLDRICK: Kids were threatening to rip it up and use it for kindling. They said they were gonna light it on fire. They were not a – going to read it. They refused to read it. They refused to touch it. It was – we were Enemy Number One in our school for a little bit. [LAUGHS]
CHRIS NEARY: Neshaminy is a sports powerhouse. Its football teams are among the best in suburban Philadelphia.
ANNOUCER: Here come the Redskins!
[CHEERS][SOUND UP & UNDER
CHRIS NEARY: The editorial hit a nerve. But soon, students got back to reading the paper. It’s high school. Drama comes and goes. The story would have ended there but –
CORRESPONDENT: Neshaminy School District administrators have told the high school student newspaper editorial staff to hold off on its new policy not to use the sport team’s “Redskins” nickname…
CHRIS NEARY: The school’s principal, Dr. Robert McGee, emailed the paper’s advisor with the directive to hold the new policy until they could meet with the paper’s editors. McGee declined to comment for this story but, according to reports, he had two objections. First, he didn’t think the name was, in fact, racist. Second, and more importantly, he questioned whether the editors had the right to exclude the word. Wouldn’t the policy infringe on other students’ First Amendment rights by preventing them from us9ing the word when writing for the paper?
The story went national. Here’s a clip from the Keith Olbermann Show about McGee and the then-school board president.
KEITH OLBERMANN: He and the principal telling them they must use it, in America. Principal Bob McGee and School Board President Richie Webb of Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania, today’s “Worst Persons in the Sports World.”
CHRIS NEARY: I should note here that McGee has called what the students did “valiant” and he nominated McGoldrick for a leadership award. This isn’t the Pentagon Papers. McGee has asked the students to prove that they have the right to exclude the “R word” from the paper.
GAYLE SPROUL: My name is Gayle Sproul, and I’m a partner in the law firm of Levine, Sullivan, Koch and Schulz in Philadelphia. We do only media work, primarily media defense work.
CHRIS NEARY: Have you defended a high school before?
GAYLE SPROUL: I never have been involved with a high school student before, other than my own children. [LAUGHS]
CHRIS NEARY: What began as a decision by 21 teenagers had led to both the paper and the district taking on lawyers. On the editors’ side, Sproul says that the Supreme Court and Pennsylvania state law give the students the right to change their policy. Also –
GAYLE SPROUL: The First Amendment prevents school administrators from compelling students to speak, to say things that they did not wish to say. And, you know, in our view, this is a case where the students do not want to use a word, and the administration would be compelling them to do so. And that’s a violation. And, in fact, the thing that they don’t want to say they have found to be a hateful term.
CHRIS NEARY: Mike Levin, the lawyer who represents the district, says the law allows the school to override the editors. And anyway –
MIKE LEVIN: The word “Redskin” is not thought of and has not been used in the Neshaminy School District as a term that means anything other than a term of distinction, a term of honor, a term of respect. So why are we arguing about the fact that some people might find it offensive because some people a long time ago may have used it in an offensive way?
CHRIS NEARY: There may not be a single student in Neshaminy High School who means to offend when they use the term “Redskins and there probably aren’t many Washington Redskins fans who do either. Nevertheless, right now you won’t find the word “Redskin” in the pages of the Playwickian. The students are on top while the lawyers are working it out. But here’s something permanent: After reporting on the students’ decision, a local paper in Neshaminy stopped using the word. Here’s Buck’s County Courier Times Executive Editor, Patricia Walker:
PATRICIA WALKER: If it offends some, it’s offensive, so why wouldn't we just support their stand and take the stand ourself to not use the word “Redskins” in the papers? And that sort of then, obviously, spreads to include the Washington NFL team. And we said, well, if we’re gonna do it for the high school, you know, we have to make a bolder and broader decision not to do it at all.
CHRIS NEARY: If it still seems puzzling that some people make so much of this word, consider the view of Gyasi Ross, a Native American writer and lawyer who posted this on Deadspin last fall, quote, “Whether or not the term ‘Redskin’ is inherently racist is the wrong question.
The more appropriate question is, would it be acceptable to name a professional sports team according to the color of someone else’s skin? Would it ever be cool for a sports team to be called the Washington Blackskins? It seems appropriate. DC is the chocolate city. But um, hell, no. San Francisco Yellowskins? Mm, won’t work. None of the above,” he wrote, “would be cool.” For On the Media, I’m Chris Neary.
[I’D LOVE TO CHANGE YOUR NAME UP & UNDER]
KENNY CHESNEY SINGING:
Ain’t nothin’ else about you I'd ever want to change Honey I'd sure love to change your name