McGuire on Media

Timing is everything when it comes to flap over Washington football team’s nickname

The fact that the nickname for the Washington football team is suddenly back in the news has stunned me. It proves that there is a time for everything and 1994 certainly wasn’t the time.

A who’s who list of sports figures and publications has promised not to use the name including NBC’s Bob Costas,  Sports Illustrated writer and online franchise Peter King, USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, Slate.com, The New Republic and others. The San Francisco Chronicle, calling the Washington nickname a “racial epithet,” stopped using it last week. Tuesday morning six members of the Minneapolis City Council even came out against the nickname.

That fascinates me because in 1994, as Editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune  I banned the use of Indian nicknames to describe sports teams. I followed by two years Editor Bill Hilliard’s move to do the same thing at the Portland Oregonian. I admired Bill and felt he was on the right track. Hilliard largely escaped public pillory. And his successors Sandy Rowe and Peter Bhatia have remained loyal to Bill’s decision and have never changed the policy.

 I did not fare as well. My sports staff was not happy and criticism came  from many quarters. Among other things, we were accused of being self-aggrandizing. Naturally, there was also praise from the Native American community.

The decision did not have legs at the Star Tribune either. Soon after I retired in 2002, the new editor, Anders Gyllenhaal rescinded the decision. He received some criticism and Keith Woods wrote a blistering column for Poynter but not much else happened. The Minneapolis City Council certainly didn’t weigh in.

Hilliard’s courageousness was a huge motivator for me but there were three other factors. One was the passionate urging of Star Tribune Deputy Managing Editor Steve Ronald who had attended a Native American Journalists convention. Sports editor Julie Engebrecht also enthusiastically supported the idea.

Another huge issue for me was that as we discussed the issue it emerged that unbeknownst to readers, editors and fellow staff members, a courageous reporter and writer, Howard Sinker, had implemented his own ban during the 1991 World Series. Sinker never once used the nickname for the Atlanta baseball team in writing all of our page 1 game reports. The fact that nobody noticed or protested helped me decide, mistakenly, that the ban was not a big deal. 

The bigger motivation for me was a fairly popular parody poster from the time which showed pennants with derogatory team names. I cannot find that poster now but this one and this cartoon make similar points. When Bob Costas spoke out on the issue he said, “Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group.”

I found that walking in other people’s shoes crystalized the issue for me. At the time I was coming to grips with my own physical disability and I intensely disliked the idea of a team being named The Minneapolis Gimps.

But that still leaves the threshold question in play: Why is the issue resonating now and it was mocked in 1994?  As always the answer is not obvious but I think there are some good possibilities.

My wife, Jean, has a good point when she opines that the country’s move toward recognizing gay marriages and gay unions is a factor.  She argues there is less tolerance for irrational acts of hate and malice because of the move toward gay marriage. I am skeptical because as evidenced from the horrible mess with the Miami Dolphins and our national politics, compassion does not seem to be on the uptick.

I think the answers are media answers. In 1994 the new media was still centralized. There was basically one source of information in each town. As long as newspaper editors didn’t pick up the cudgel nobody else was going to do it. And newspaper editors steered miles clear of the decision.

Actually the NCAA took up the case in 2005 and used its power to  change several loffensive nicknames. But you still didn’t see a lot of newspapers change their stylebooks to ban such nicknames.

As so it is now. With the exception of last week’s action by the San Francisco Chronicle, newspapers and local television stations are not the leaders on this issue. Peter King of MMQB, Slate.com and New Republic are out front and that is curious.

Some would argue that only newspapers believe in strict accuracy, the usual defense of keeping such nicknames. I have always rejected that theory as specious. However, nobody has rejected it as well as Keith Woods did in this article. He wrote:”Take this example: We may report that a man “suffered head injuries” in a traffic accident. That’s accurate. Or, we may say that “a huge
gash was opened just below the left temporal lobe of the brain and
small portions of brain matter were scattered on the asphalt.” That,
too, is accurate. It’s just that the second one’s likely to hurt many
people, not least among them the family of the person on the pavement.” It’s a vivid but effective analogy.

I am afraid I conclude that the newspaper silence on this issue is more about a lack of boldness than it is about accuracy. And, if newspapers can’t be bold about not using the Washington’s football team nickname then can they really be expected to be bold about anything else in these times that call for innovation and reinvention?

Many sportswriters are starting to cover this story like, well, like a sport story.  They are focusing on whether Daniel Snyder owner of the Washington team will drop the ugly nickname and when. They are putting in a win or lose context. That should not be newspapers’ concern.

This should never be a campaign to force a name change. that never dawned on me in 1994.  Newspapers’ only concern should be whether they are doing what is right. Daniel Snyder will do what he wants to do, but newspapers do not have to be complicit with the racist nickname for his team.

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