Senior Conspirator Eugene Volokh notes that polls show that a majority of Native Americans do not object to the use of the name Washington Redskins by the DC NFL team. As a general rule, I don’t think that it’s wrong to name sports teams after ethnic groups. Eugene correctly points out that naming a team after a group is usually the result of positive associations with the group rather than negative ones.
Certainly, no one objects to the Minnesota Vikings, the Boston Celtics, or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Notre Dame case is particularly telling, given that the team’s name not only includes the name of an ethnic group, but also references the stereotype that the Irish are unusually violent. Team names such as the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves also seem unobjectionable. Indeed, using “Braves” as a team name seems little different from using “Vikings,” in so far as both terms refer to a type of fearsome warrior associated with a particular ethnic group.
I have always thought that “Redskins” is a tougher case because the word has a long history as an ethnic slur against Native Americans. Thus, I would expect them to find it offensive. And they might well be justified in taking such offense. Certainly, blacks would have justifiable cause for anger if a pro sports team used the N word as a name, and Jews if a team started calling itself the “New York Kikes.” The fact that most Native Americans nonetheless do not object to the NFL franchise’s use of “Redskins” suggests that the term may have lost its insulting connotations. If it has, then it might be unobjectionable after all. However, I would need to see more data about current usage of the word and about Native American awareness of its past uses to reach a definitive judgment. Even if “redskin” is no longer much used as a slur in mainstream culture, it’s possible that it still gets used in that way in some parts of the country with large Native American populations.