The central premise of ESPN columnist’s Rick Reilly’s treatise defending the name of Washington’s professional football team was that he knew some Native Americans who didn’t have a problem with it. Reilly quoted officials from a couple high schools on Indian reservations that still use the name, and he topped it off by quoting his father-in-law, a Blackfeet Indian “owns a steak restaurant on the reservation near Browning, Mont. He has a hard time seeing the slap-in-the-face part.”
“The whole issue is so silly to me,” Reilly’s father-in-law, Bob Burns, told Reilly. “The name just doesn’t bother me much. It’s an issue that shouldn’t be an issue, not with all the problems we’ve got in this country.”
Except that’s not what Bob Burns, who wrote a response to Reilly’s column at Indian Country Today Media Network (via Deadspin), told Reilly at all. In fact, Burns wrote that he said the exact opposite:
What I actually said is that “it’s silly in this day and age that this should even be a battle — if the name offends someone, change it.” He failed to include my comments that the term “redskins” demeans Indians, and historically is insulting and offensive, and that I firmly believe the Washington Redskins should change their name.
When Rick’s article came out, it upset me to be portrayed as an “Uncle Tom” in support of this racial slur. I asked him to correct the record. He has not, so I must do it myself.
“Redskins” is part of that mentality from colonial times when our men, women and children were hunted by soldiers and mercenaries who were paid for the scalps of our men, women and children. How can anyone claim this is a proud tradition to come from? The labels, racism and hatred our people continue to experience are directly tied to those racial slurs.
Let me be clear: The racial slur “redskins” is not okay with me. It’s never going to be okay with me. It’s inappropriate, damaging and racist.
In the memory of our Blackfeet relatives, it’s time to change the name. That would honor us.
So one of the central characters in Reilly’s narrative — a narrative that says the name of Washington’s football team isn’t all that bad even to many Native Americans — is false. It blows up the entire premise of his piece. Forget the fact that this is his father-in-law. If what Burns says is true, Rick Reilly, a man with bookshelves full of journalism awards, misrepresented a source in print, then refused to correct it when asked. Reilly’s column was bad — particularly his awful conclusion that white people opposed to the name “Redskins” were just like white people who put Native Americans on reservations. But having a different opinion is one thing. This is journalistic malpractice, all in the service of sticking up for a bunch of people who don’t struggle to fabricate their own stories to defend the name.
In 1991, Reilly wrote a column calling “Redskins” an other names that appropriate Native American imagery “antiques of that old racism.” Had he actually listened to his father-in-law, he might still hold the same view, and he might have avoided writing a column that would cost most journalists their job.