When I announced Wednesday that we were banning the name of Washington’s NFL team from The Seattle Times’ sports coverage, I braced myself for strong reaction. I expected a lot of angry messages via email, telephone and social media.
And, boy, did they come. Now that the flood of messages has slowed to a trickle, I can admit I was surprised.
Surprised at the depth of emotions. Surprised at the political overtones. Surprised at how long the whole storm I created took to blow over.
Maybe you’re surprised that I was surprised.
Call me naive, but I didn’t think our decision would cause such an uproar. We are, after all, just one news organization 3,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., doing nothing more than what several other publications have already done. But two days after I posted a headline that read, “Why we’re banning Redskins in The Seattle Times,” the numbers underscore the depth of the reaction: More than 75,000 page views, 1,500 comments, 300 emails, 60 calls or voicemails, and a flood of Twitter and Facebook posts. You can read some of the emails in this Take 2 post.
I’ve been sports editor for five years, and an editor for 30. No other story has generated such a reaction.
What did I learn? How political this issue is. Depending on who you’re talking to, it’s about censorship, about political correctness gone wild, about left and right and which side of the political divide you happen to be on.
The post was an attempt at transparency, to let readers know what we were doing and why, but we were accused of grandstanding, of trying to sell papers and generate page views.
Among other things, I realized pretty quickly that I forgotten to mention four things in the first post. Let me try to set the record straight.
1) The ruling Wednesday by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that the name is “disparaging of Native Americans” and should not be allowed trademark protection had nothing to do with my decision. We had decided a couple of weeks before to stop using the term. I had written the post Sunday night, but was waiting for a few calls back from Native American leaders before announcing it.
2) We will still cover Washington’s NFL games. We just won’t use the offensive name. We’ll call the team Washington or the NFL team in Washington, D.C. You likely wouldn’t have even noticed it if I hadn’t brought it to your attention. A sports editor at another newspaper who also banned the name said no one complained until he wrote about it.
3) We also banned the use of Chief Wahoo, the racist caricature of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, about 20 years ago. That ban continues.
4) I’m a left-leaning, ego-maniacal moron. Those words were used in emails or voicemails from angry readers. And those are the ones I can print. There were worse, much worse. Talk about insensitive name-calling. Some were actually poetic in their harshness, but others were simply chilling. Of course, many were well-reasoned, well-written arguments on both sides of this charged issue.
Two phone calls Thursday morning underscore the divide.
On Line 1 was Sonny Skyhawk, a 70-year-old Rosebud Sioux who grew up in South Dakota and now lives in Pasadena, Calif. He told me he cried after reading my decision because it brought back a powerful memory from his childhood. In third or fourth grade, he came home and had to explain why his shirt was ripped and his buttons torn off. He had been in a fight after a non-Native kid had called him the same word that Daniel Snyder calls his NFL team based in Washington, D.C.
“Until you’ve experienced it yourself, you’ll never understand what it’s like as a child to hear that and feel that,” Skyhawk said. “No one should have to feel that way.”
I thanked him for sharing his story and took another call.
On Line 2 was a gentleman from Bellingham who was probably about the same age – and just as emotional.
He was angry that I’d banned a team’s name that had been used for 75 years. Racist? No way! It was censorship, pure and simple. Why was that word any different from a hundred other names of sports teams. Where would it stop? I was too PC, too sensitive, too liberal and he would never read my paper again.
Sports is supposed to be entertainment, a diversion from the sometimes depressing realities of the rest of our lives. The Seahawks’ Super Bowl season galvanized a region in a way few things can. Our city became a 12th Man-tinged sea of blue and green. A few months later, another NFL team divides us. Some of the same strangers who exchanged smiles and “Go Hawks!” as they passed on the street are on opposite sides of this issue.
Unfortunately, sometimes sports can create a division instead of a diversion.
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