by Roxanne Jones
(CNN) — The audience was tense. Tempers were heated. Tears were seen and blows were nearly thrown. We needed a referee.
This was not the pre-fight press conference weigh-in for a Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao boxing match. It was a panel discussion between African-American and Native American journalists from across the country to consider whether the Washington Redskins name was racist.
But the conversation at the Unity Journalists of Color convention, which included more than 6,000 media professionals, got nowhere.
Black journalists accused their Native American counterparts of showing racist videos during the panel of ranting Black fans cheering for their beloved football team, including extensive video of the team’s then-beloved, now maligned Chief Zee, the African-American man (Zema Williams) who’s been the team’s unofficial mascot for 35 years.
“Black people are not the only Washington fans in the stadium,” I argued then. “Where are the other fan faces? And why is this a racial issue?” Our Native American peers yelled back, a few of them in tears, that we were being insensitive and ignorant for not understanding that the Redskin name was hurtful and damaging to their community.
Nothing changed. Everyone left the workshop insulted and insistent they were on the right side of the debate, including myself. And we never found common ground. That was nearly 20 years ago.
So it was refreshing earlier this week to hear President Obama, the nation’s commander in chief and a sports fan, weigh in saying he’d think about changing the name if he were the owner of the team.
“I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things. … I don’t want to detract from the wonderful Redskins fans that are here. They love their team and rightly so,” the president said to The Associated Press.
I thought back to that Unity meeting and knew his words rang true. And I remembered several of my colleagues who, over the years, have tried to get me or others in the newsroom to feel their pain. And honestly, I just never gave it enough thought.
But no longer can I justify my years of indifference to the sports moniker. The name must change. Let’s toss it in the trash heap along with other now offensive — but once widely used — monikers such as Sambo, darky, dago and kike.
And if you or team owner Daniel Snyder, who insists he’ll never change the team name, are a bit insulted, that’s the whole point. It is exactly what my Native American colleagues struggled to tell us for as long as I can remember.
Predictably, many Redskins fans are livid that the president would jump into this fight. They are hypocrites. They’re not the only people who can have an opinion about this matter.
U.S. politicians are sports fans, too. Some of them have been quite engaged with popular sports conversations. President Ronald Reagan brought “The Gipper” to the White House. Obama participates in the annual March Madness bracket frenzy.
For any fan, sports are among the most uplifting things about life. It’s the one place we can escape the worries in the grownup world and enjoy our childlike enthusiasm for the games. None of that feeling goes away with a name change in Washington.
Supporters of keeping the team name can see only tradition and honor of the franchise. Some are defensive — rightfully, I believe — about anyone saying they are somehow intentionally being malicious.
Lanny J. Davis, an attorney for the Redskins and an Obama supporter, said in an e-mail to the media that fans don’t intend to “disparage or disrespect” anyone. “The name ‘Washington Redskins’ is 80 years old. It’s our history and legacy and tradition.”
What else could he say? He is paid by the team. But he must know that his argument just makes no sense. The football team’s glorious history may indeed stretch back 80 wonderful years, but what intelligent person, or even a diehard football fan like me, could seriously argue that 80 years of entertaining football history could ever compare to the thousands of years that the original Americans have inhabited this land?
It’s time to get on the right side of American history.
Editor’s note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women’s topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete,” (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies.