Let’s consider our own Memphis Grizzlies. The team kept a nickname that migrated from Vancouver because fans here have embraced it. In fact, you or someone in your family probably owns a cap or a shirt bearing the team nickname or the likeness of a grizzly bear.
It’s a cool nickname and just using it conjures the best memories of having an NBA team here: Zach Randolph telling Kendrick Perkins that “I don’t bluff.” Randolph and the Brothers Gasol representing the Memphis Grizzlies in NBA All-Star Games. The deep playoff run of 2013 that had the Grizzlies one step from the NBA Finals.
In Memphis, Grizzlies is a prideful name. It matters not that there are no real-life grizzly bears fishing in the Mississippi River or roaming around Shelby Farms. After less than 15 years here, the name Grizzlies means Memphis.
In light of that, maybe it’s a little easier to understand why the Washington Redskins – led by owner Daniel Snyder – are fighting so hard to keep a team nickname that has been around for more than 80 years.
And before some Captain Obvious points out that grizzlies are animals and Redskins refers to people, yes, I get the difference. A grizzly in the Memphis Zoo, for example, can’t object to, say, Jeremy Pargo’s presence in a Grizzlies uniform being an insult to his proud heritage.
Joe Theismann, who was a long-time quarterback for the Redskins and who spends part of the year living in Germantown, recently spoke to the nickname issue on Middays with Greg & Eli on Real Sports Talk Sports 56.
For Theismann, and certainly for legions of fans that have followed the Redskins for decades, the nickname equals football, history and glory.
“When I hear `Redskins’ today,” Theismann said, “I think of George Allen, Billy Kilmer, Sonny Jurgensen, John Riggins, Joe Gibbs.”
As others have, Theismann pointed out that the Redskins logo on the helmet was designed by Native Americans. And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in his last state-of-the-NFL address before the most recent Super Bowl that the franchise has “presented the name in a way that is honorable to Native Americans” and claimed a poll in the Native American community showed nine out of 10 people “prefer the name” to changing it.
Now, Goodell, Snyder and even Theismann come to this with their own biases. And it’s hard to know what to make of this “poll” Goodell mentioned. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the Redskins’ trademark registration. The team is appealing – it has won an appeal on this issue before – and about all the decision means at this stage is that others are now free to try and profit off the name and the logo.
Quite the irony.
Meantime, FedEx CEO Fred Smith has been drawn into the controversy. Smith is a part-owner of the team and FedEx has naming rights to the stadium: FedEx Field. Smith has played diplomat – “the Redskins need to speak on the Redskins’ name,” Smith told a CNBC host – but the National Congress of American Indians wrote him a letter asking for his help in getting the name changed.
Theismann said when he spoke at an event tied to the New Mexico Bowl, 15 to 20 Native Americans approached him to tell him they don’t want the name changed and that he’s never had anyone personally tell him they believe the name should be changed.
“At what point,” Theismann said, “does anything that someone has an identification with bother someone?”
Awkward phrasing aside, he makes a case. If Redskins is offensive, then Braves, Chiefs and Indians with their various logos and mascots would have to go. And what about Pirates? Aren’t we glamorizing high-sea criminals? And Hurricanes and Lightning, don’t they kill people?
This can become as ridiculous as we want to make it. Then again, I’m not a Native American. If I were, maybe I’d find the terms “Redskins” and “Chiefs” honoring, or maybe I’d find them insulting.
I guess until some team becomes the Balding Middle-Aged Paunchy White Guys I won’t really know.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.