Redskins nickname debate begins to overshadow team's play

ARLINGTON, Texas – Washington's football nickname is getting to be as big of a topic as the football team itself.

That seemed impossible only a few weeks ago, yet here we are. NBC's Bob Costas used his "Sunday Night Football" pulpit to call the Redskins name a slur at halftime, and that wasn't the only example. A handful of fans protested the nickname outside Cowboys Stadium before Dallas' 31-16 victory over Washington here Sunday, with one fan holding a sign equating "Redskins" to another racial slur. And in a forum before the game at the arena with Cowboys season-ticket holders, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked pointedly about the nickname and whether it would change.

"The whole thing is bigger than it needs to be," former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley told Yahoo Sports after the game. "And once that happens, it goes where it goes."

That's it exactly: the size of the issue, whether you hate the name or not, has become too large to tamp down or shrug off anymore. The tipping point of this debate will be measured by sociologists and football historians, but it certainly feels closer than ever. It almost feels like it's happening right now.

"You have to address it," Cooley said. "It's something that matters."

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The polls don't matter as much anymore. Change happens in the polls after it happens in the hearts and minds of people, and that process feels like it's building. Even if a majority of fans don't want the name changed, a majority of fans are aware of the debate and have an opinion. Costas' soliloquy can be downplayed as part of a larger media agenda, but when a fan is given one opportunity to ask the commissioner anything in the world, and he asks about the nickname, that means this is more than just a "politically correct movement."

No, it's not an on-field issue and it may never be, but that doesn't mean it won't influence the franchise.

"The guys in here aren't going to lose their focus," Cooley said. "My fear is that it'll divide the fan base. We have such good fans and I'm worried you'll split the fan base."

Goodell, who grew up in Washington, was careful in his response to the fan, who asked about the nickname. "I know the fans felt deeply about it," Goodell said. "I saw it and felt it myself. We also have to be sensitive enough to at least listen and see what it is we can do if we're insulting any element of our fan base and or not our fan base for that matter. We need to see what we can do. We need to listen, we need to engage and try to understand what it is."

That response feels outdated. We already know an element of the NFL fan base is insulted. It doesn't take much to "engage" and "try to understand what it is" when it's clear many believe the nickname is anywhere from tone-deaf to slanderous. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has insisted the name will never change, but no public figure wants to be on the wrong side of history, and history seems to be shifting by the day this season.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, seated on Goodell's right during the fan forum, felt compelled to defend Snyder's character.

"Dan's a personal friend of mine and he's not insensitive at all," Jones said. "He's very sensitive. And he's weighing the very things that you've just talked about right here.

"It would be a real mistake, a real mistake to think that Dan, who is Jewish, in any way has a lack of sensitivity regarding someone's feelings."

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Jones' need to address any perceived "lack of sensitivity" shows the weight of the topic on not only Snyder, but all NFL owners and Goodell himself. Snyder, a Redskins fan, surely took over the team with the sole goal of winning a Super Bowl. This decision may ultimately define his reputation as much as winning or losing. People who wonder why this is suddenly a big deal after decades when it wasn't are missing the point: it's a big deal now. It's a big deal in this era, the era of Snyder and Goodell and Jones. They all have to decide and live with their choice. Goodell's position is "we need to see what we can do," and that sounds active rather than passive, but there's only one thing to "do": change the name or tacitly support the current name.

"If you say something either way, it's criticized," Cooley said. Again, he's right: Backlash against this debate only undermines the purpose of the backlash; if people are upset enough to shout down the issue, it means they care enough to voice their anger. That pushes the issue forward, not backward.

The only thing that can push the issue backward is apathy. It's hard to imagine that creeping in now, not when Bob Costas is talking about it, fans are talking about it, one of the most iconic owners in sports is talking about it, and the commissioner is talking about it – all on the same night.

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People will never stop paying attention to the Redskins. It's a standing question, however, whether people will stop paying attention to that nickname.