ESPN Columnist: Changing ‘Redskins’ Name Akin To Putting Indians On A Reservation

Rick Reilly
Rick Reilly

ESPN’s Rick Reilly has won a lot of awards for his sports writing, but he probably should have spent the 15 or 20 minutes he spent on his latest column doing something else. Reilly, seemingly perturbed at the debate over the name of Washington’s professional football franchise and columnists like USA Today’s Christine Brennan and Sports Illustrated’s Peter King who have said they’ll no longer used it, penned an absurd defense of the name this week.

Reilly’s defense is predicated on the fact that his father-in-law, a Blackfeet Indian, has no problem with the name, and neither do a few other people with Native American blood that he knows. He also found a three schools on Indian reservations that use the name “Redskins” with pride. And he cited an old poll from the Annenberg Public Policy Institute showing that Native Americans as a group don’t really find the name offensive.

That’s quite a lineup. A poll, three schools, and his father-in-law!

Of course, there are dozens of schools across America that have dropped the name “Redskins” or another like it in recent years. That poll, well, that poll has some problems, as I’ve detailed before — for one, it’s a decade old, and it also polls people who say they are part Native American, not people who actually are. And with all due respect to Reilly’s father-in-law, there are a lot of other American Indians who do have a problem with the name — like the Wisconsin’ Oneida Tribe, whose members protested the name outside the Green Bay-Washington game last week, and New York’s Oneida Tribe, which is running ads against the name. There are also the Native Americans who are suing the team in a federal trademark court, asking that the government stop protecting a racist term (that court agreed with them in 1999, only to have its decision overturned on a technicality in 2003). And there are multiple Native American members of Congress who signed a letter protesting the name to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell earlier this year.


There’s also the dictionary. Choose your favorite: Merriam-Webster calls it “usually offensive.” Oxford calls it a “dated offensive” term for American Indians. The Free Online Dictionary prefers “a disparaging term for a Native American.” And so on and so forth.

It’s fine that Reilly’s father-in-law doesn’t find the name offensive, or that other Native Americans don’t either. It’s fine that some Native Americans think haggling over the name of a football team isn’t important enough to spend time and resources on, given the bevy of problems facing their communities. But some Native Americans do find it offensive, and some of them do take it as an insult, and some of them do find it representative of America’s view of Native Americans as a forgotten, invisible population. Digging up a few of the people who don’t have a problem with the name isn’t enough to silence those who do, no matter how hard Reilly tries.

The column was bad from the first word, but Reilly saved the worst for last. Speaking as the white American do-gooder he’s made up in his head, Reilly writes:

“For the Native Americans who haven’t asked for help, we’re glad to give it to them. Trust us. We know what’s best. We’ll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again.

Kind of like a reservation.”

I get it now. Rick Reilly, one of the most established columnists in the game, just won the Internet Troll Olympics. That, or the ESPN editor who allowed this to publish was too flabbergasted to read to the last, mind-numbingly ignorant line.