Over the past several years, the Washington Redskins nickname has been criticized for its racist nature, but the pressure to force the team to change the nickname has never been as great as it is now. Columnists have spoken out against it. News outlets have said they will refuse to print the nickname. Even President Barack Obama has said the team should consider changing the name. That’s why it was so mystifying last month when such a well-respected columnist like ESPN’s Rick Reilly, formerly of Sports Illustrated’s back page, would express his support for the name.
In September, Reilly published a column on ESPN.com explaining why he supported the Redskins nickname. He cited a poll and quoted a few individuals in his explanation for why he supported the name. But the real kicker for the column came when he quoted his father-in-law, Bob Burns, who is a Blackfeet Indian.
Here’s what Reilly wrote:
I just don’t quite know how to tell my father-in-law, a Blackfeet Indian. He owns a steak restaurant on the reservation near Browning, Mont. He has a hard time seeing the slap-in-the-face part.
“The whole issue is so silly to me,” says Bob Burns, my wife’s father and a bundle holder in the Blackfeet tribe. “The name just doesn’t bother me much. It’s an issue that shouldn’t be an issue, not with all the problems we’ve got in this country.”
Burns was not happy with the way he was portrayed in the article and says he even tried to get Reilly to change the quote. Since Reilly would not change it, Burns resorted to writing a lengthy column for Indian Country Today Media Network to explain that he was misquoted and why he finds the Redskins nickname offensive.
First, Burns cited history and shared how his people were massacred in Montana in 1870, and how the people responsible for the massacre likely referred to his people as “dirty redskins.” That pretty much encapsulates his feeling of disdain for the name.
Here is part of what Burns wrote in his column. This is specifically the part that deals with being misquoted by his son-in-law:
So you can imagine my dismay when I saw my name and words used to defend the racist Washington Redskins name. My son-in-law, ESPN’s Rick Reilly, completely misunderstood the conversation we had, quoting me as saying “the whole issue is so silly. The name just doesn’t bother me much. It’s an issue that shouldn’t be an issue, not with all the problems we’ve got in this country.”
But that’s not what I said.
What I actually said is that “it’s silly in this day and age that this should even be a battle — if the name offends someone, change it.” He failed to include my comments that the term “redskins” demeans Indians, and historically is insulting and offensive, and that I firmly believe the Washington Redskins should change their name.
When Rick’s article came out, it upset me to be portrayed as an “Uncle Tom” in support of this racial slur. I asked him to correct the record. He has not, so I must do it myself.
His entire column is definitely worth reading, especially for anyone who doesn’t view the “Redskins” nickname as inappropriate. In fact, Burns describes the name as “inappropriate, damaging and racist,” and says it’s time to change the name.
There are actually two stories going on here at once. One is that Reilly, who has been one of the best and most influential sports writers of the past several decades, appears to have grossly misquoted and distorted the words of someone (his father-in-law, no less) to form a controversial opinion. From a journalistic ethics standpoint, that is a serious issue and offense that could lead to termination. Secondly, Burns lays out an extremely convincing case as to why the nickname should be changed. I’ve long felt that the name is inappropriate and that the only reason it remains is because of tradition and the refusal of fans to part with that tradition. But it’s time to make that change.
UPDATE: Reilly responded via his Twitter account and says he stands by his reporting.
“While I stand by the reporting in my Sept. 18 column about the Washington Redskins nickname controversy, and felt I accurately quoted my father-in-law in the piece, clearly he feels differently. This is an incredibly sensitive issue, and Bob felt he had more to say on the subject after that column was posted on ESPN.com. We’ve spoken and cleared this up. I admire Bob and respect his opinions, and he’s welcome to express them. Bob and I are good and I’m looking forward to my next steak with him.”Google+