ESPN announced Saturday that it would give its on-air broadcasters, analysts, and personalities the option to avoid saying the name of Washington’s professional football team, a day after the Washington Post editorial board joined the list of publications that will no longer print the name and ESPN’s Keith Olbermann used his show to call on the network to institute such a policy.
“Our consistent company policy will continue: using official names and marks as presented by the teams, leagues and conferences we cover,” ESPN said in a statement. “We do, however, recognize the debate over the use of ‘Washington Redskins’ and have afforded individuals the opportunity to decide how they will use those words when reporting on the team.”
The timing of ESPN’s tweak to its policy is interesting. In a statement earlier this week, it had said only, “We use the marks and nicknames as utilized by the teams, leagues and conferences we cover.” But ESPN NFL analyst Tom Jackson said Friday that he may not say the name on air this season, following in the footsteps of CBS’ Phil Simms and Greg Gumbel and NBC’s Tony Dungy, all of whom plan to avoid using the name this season (Gumbel hasn’t said it in three years, he said).
And during the Friday night episode of his ESPN2 show, Olbermann used those examples and others to call on the network to ban the word’s use altogether or to at least give its announcers, analysts, and personalities the option to avoid it.
“Not to be totally self-referential and like it or not, ESPN is the conduit of sports in this country,” Olbermann said. “It is also loath to be the news. On the other hand, the number of words I and all of my colleagues cannot say on the air is justifiably long. And frankly, many of them are way less offensive than is the name of the Washington team.”
“It is my opinion, and like my friend Greg Gumbel said I’m just one person with one thought about it, but I think it is time for us here, officially, or just like Gumbel and Simms and Dungy, to stop using the name,” Olbermann concluded.
ESPN has had internal discussions about whether to keep using the name in the past, according to a 2013 column from the network’s ombudsman, Robert Lipsyte. And while it hadn’t changed its policy until Saturday, it has given columnists like Dan Graziano and personalities like Olbermann and Bill Simmons plenty of leeway to criticize it and say it should be changed.
The network’s decision means that all four major NFL broadcast partners (ESPN, CBS, Fox, and NBC) could have on-air broadcasters and analysts who avoid the name, after CBS and Fox gave their announcers the option to stop saying it and Dungy’s decision not to use it on NBC. ESPN radio and television personality Tony Kornheiser, who opined against the name as early as 1992 when he worked for the Washington Post, highlighted how influential ESPN and those networks could be on the name during an episode of Pardon The Interruption last year.
“I don’t think writers and bloggers and websites can make this happen,” Kornheiser said. “I do think television networks can make this happen. … To pick two: If ESPN and Fox said ‘We’re not going to use Redskins anymore’ and the NFL tacitly went along with that and didn’t say anything, that would put pressure on CBS and NBC. I think it has to come from the larger institutions.”