What’s in a name?

That’s the question currently being debated by the Washington Redskins of the National Football League and a local community sports team in Ottawa, the Nepean Redskins Football Club. Those who favour retaining the name offer up reasons that run from, “Its use celebrates the heritage of Native Americans” to “the investment in the brand has been enormous and our fans’ affiliation with the brand cannot be severed” to “the cost of changing the name would be prohibitive.” Reasons also include, “I own the team and no one is going to tell me what to name it!”

The proponents of changing the name suggest the name is offensive to Native Americans and Aboriginal Peoples, and is a throwback to a time when the use of such terms were seen as acceptable by the European settlers who first colonized North America. They argue the term is no longer acceptable today as it has a pejorative meaning which marginalizes and dehumanizes Native Americans and Aboriginal Peoples.

So, how can ethics and sport help us sort through this debate? Well, ethical sport is about doing the right thing. And doing the right thing is about maximizing the benefits for the most people while minimizing the harm to those who might be affected. This is not unlike one of the fundamental principles of medicine’s Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.” But, in sport, how do we decide what is best for the most and causes the least harm? If the rules of sport do not prescribe what action we should take, how can we determine the best ethical action? We must turn to our shared values and principles to guide our decision making.

That’s all well and good, but how do we know what our shared values and principles are? In Canadian sport, we have in fact undertaken extensive and ongoing consultation with Canadians –at all levels of sport– to determine what our shared values and principles are. We have given them a face and a name: the True Sport Values and Principles. The True Sport Values are:  Fairness, Excellence, Inclusion and Fun. The True Sport Principles are: Go For It, Play Fair, Respect Others, Keep It Fun, Stay Healthy, Include Everyone, and Give Back. Not surprisingly, these values and principles are consistent with our broader Canadian values which celebrate, among other things, the richness of our multicultural society.

If we use these values and principles to guide our decision making on the question of the team name, the analysis would look something like this: If the team keeps the current name “Redskins,” is it consistent with and supportive of all True Sport Values and Principles? The arguments put forth by those in favour of keeping the name do not necessarily violate the True Sport Values and Principles. However, when we consider the arguments against keeping the name, we see there is evidence that the name is offensive to Native Americans and Aboriginal Peoples.  The term “Redskins” is offensive to a large group of people within our society and so it clearly violates the True Sport Principles of “Respect Others” and “Include Everyone.”

We know in Canada that a good sport experience can make a great difference. We know that a good sport experience can build character in young athletes and that it can strengthen our communities, making them safer and more vibrant places to live. We also know that a good sport experience is ensured when all of the True Sport Principles are included in sport in the right balance and proportion all of the time, never allowing one or more of the principles to be crowded out in the name of  another principle. The name of a sports team is at the very heart of the sport experience. The name of a team, therefore, must be consistent with all of the True Sport Principles if we want to ensure a good sport experience. The use of the term “Redskins” for a team name violates important True Sport Principles, crowding them out of the sport experience. The result is the sport experience is not a good one and the benefits are reduced.

So, what’s in a name? In the case of the “Redskins” name, the difference is between a good sport experience and one that is not. If we persist with the name, in the face of this knowledge and when there are so many alternatives, we are choosing to cause harm to some and to reduce the benefits of the sport experience for all.   

Tags: 
Ethics