The real reason the argument over the Redskins’ name matters

S. T. Karnick Director of Research, The Heartland Institute
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In response to charges that the Washington Redskins’ team name is racist, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to members of Congress on Wednesday defending the name as a “unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.” Redskins owner Dan Snyder has vowed never to change the team’s name.

This is an important issue, but not for the reason most people assume. It’s important because of its implications for the role of government in our lives.

In a Huffington Post article attacking Goodell and Snyder, Jason Linkins makes a good point: Every NFL team name is arguably a “unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.” Nonetheless, Linkins is wrong to dismiss the social value of team names, to which Goodell alludes. Residents of Pittsburgh are proud to come from Steeler Country, Minnesotans can rally around being from the land of the Vikings, and so on. Such things do have social value that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

Linkins presents historical claims (which I have no reason or inclination to question) that an earlier Redskins owner, who named the team, was “one of the most vehement racists in the history of professional sports,” in the words of a writer Linkins quotes approvingly and at length.

Linkins and others have every right to protest the Redskins’ name and complain about it to their hearts’ content, as they have done and no doubt will continue to do. They also have the right to call for government action against the Redskins and the NFL. But the government should absolutely not intervene in the dispute, as some activists are demanding.

It so happens that I am of partial American Indian descent, but like the great majority of people of full or partial American Indian descent, I find that sports team names are near the bottom of my daily list of concerns. Indeed, they are of virtually no importance at all to me and, I daresay, nearly all other reasonable people.

For the record, the name “Redskins” doesn’t offend me in the slightest. It’s just a nickname referring to the unusual complexion of American Indians. The fact that insensitive people have used the term in a derogatory manner doesn’t make the word intrinsically derogatory. One might very well be proud to be a Redskin, and some people are.

Sports team names can’t harm anyone who refuses to let such things bother them, the contentions of professional identity-politics advocates notwithstanding. But what does have a serious effect on all of us is property rights. When property rights are respected and protected, people prosper; when they are not, people suffer. Moreover, property rights are the basis for all rights, for if either the government or other private citizens can confiscate your property, your other rights are of little practical value.

And that, to me, is what is truly important in this discussion. Linkins and others don’t like the Redskins’ name. Fine. They don’t have to use it, they don’t have to buy Redskins paraphernalia, and they can stop watching Redskins games. They likewise have the right to suggest that other NFL fans stop watching the team. They have the right to try to work up a boycott of the NFL’s corporate sponsors. Have at it, by all means, if you so desire.

Linkins, however, is unsatisfied with all of that. He thinks government action is the answer:

If you want “strength, courage, pride, and respect,” look to Stewart Udall, the secretary of the interior who finally told [Redskins owner] George Preston Marshall that if he didn’t integrate his team then he would have to take it on the arches and get the hell out of the government-owned stadium in which the team played.

The racial integration of the NFL was a thoroughly good thing, but the granting of government subsidies and the use of them to enable the state to manipulate individuals and institutions is wasteful and wrong. It’s a way to make private institutions dependent on — and therefore far more responsive to — government directives. Using government subsidies to manipulate institutions’ behavior is also a violation of people’s property rights, since it involves taking hard-earned money from people and giving it to others who could not get that money through voluntary trade.

Some commentators have suggested that Congress should threaten to remove the NFL’s antitrust exemption if the Redskins don’t change their name. This implies that the government has the right to break up a business simply because a great number of people want to buy its product, and that the government should use exemptions from this threat to coerce businesses to do its bidding. Linkins doesn’t make this argument, to his credit, but it’s based on the same assumptions as his subsidy argument.

I agree with Linkins that the Redskins shouldn’t receive any taxpayer subsidies, but I do so not because of my genetic makeup but instead because of something all human beings share: the right to be secure in our property. I choose not to get worked up over the Redskins’ name, Linkins and others choose to be insulted by it, and Redskins owner Dan Snyder refuses to change it. Each of us has the right to our opinion, and to state it as we will.

But those rights disappear as soon as we run to government to resolve the matter.

S. T. Karnick is director of research for The Heartland Institute.