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Is ESPN Dropping the Ball by Using the Term ‘Redskins’ on ‘MNF?’

Analysis: The sports network, N.Y. Times and Associated Press all refused to join boycott of NFL nickname many see as a slur

Are you ready for some football …. controversy?

When “Monday Night Football’ makes its season debut on tomorrow on ESPN, it will match the National Football League’s Philadelphia Eagles against the team from Washington, whose “Redskins” nickname is viewed as pejorative by Native Americans and others who are calling for an end to its use.

“We are concerned that the NFL’s continued use of such an offensive term is undermining its position as a unifying force in America,” said Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter, whose group has launched the web site changethemascot.org.

“Using a slur and making a mascot out of our indigenous culture has no place in such a society. We believe that with the help of our fellow professional football fans, we can get the NFL to realize the error of its ways and make a very simple change.”

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Commentators, civil rights groups and even members of Congress have for years urged the team to drop the name but the team’s owner Daniel Snyder has made his position clear.

“We’ll never change the name,’ he said. “It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.”

The calls for a change have intensified this year, and several news outlets including Slate, Mother Jones and the New Republic have agreed to stop using the nickname, which was first adopted in 1933. None of those sites are go-to destinations for mainstream football fans, however, and the Associated Press, New York Times and ESPN said this week that they won’t join the boycott.

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“We are aware of the issue and have talked about it. Of course we do not use offensive racial or ethnic slurs in news stories unless doing so is essential to the reader’s understanding of the story,” the Times’ editor in charge of standards Phillip Corbett told Forbes. “‘Redskin,’ when used as a derogatory term for a Native American, would fit into this category.

“But I think the situation is more complicated in the case of a sports name like the Washington Redskins. When we write about the football team, I don’t believe readers think that the Times is intending the term as a slur referring to Native Americans.

“Certainly it’s legitimate to debate the propriety of sports names with that sort of background or history, and we have reported on this issue. But I’m not sure The Times’s stylebook is the place where that debate is going to be resolved.”

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There are reasons beyond tradition that would make it a big deal for the Redskins to change their name. A good bit of the team’s $1.6 billion in total worth is tied up in its brand equity. And those same sorts of concerns arise for the CBS, Fox and ESPN, all of which are business partners with the NFL via their TV contracts.

ESPN’s sr. vice-president of content for print and digital media Rob King addressed the subject in a column by the network’s ombudsman Robert Lipsyte.

“I’m from the D.C. area and a fan all my life,” said King “and I’ve thought about the Generals and the Statesmen as names, even George Washington replacing the Indian on the logo.

“At ESPN, the only thing that really matters is serving fans. NFL fans think of the Washington, D.C.-area franchise as the Redskins. So that informs how we’ll serve them across news, commentary, scores and fantasy coverage. We will use the term Redskins so long as fans expect this to be the nomenclature that drives their rooting experience.

“So hail to ‘em.”

In the same column, Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, took a different stance.

“To simply ignore the nickname in our coverage seems like nothing more than grandstanding. We can use the name of the team, but our best service to fans is to report the hell out of the story, draw attention to the issue and cover all aspects of the controversy.”