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How Obama’s Take on a Football Team Name Explains His Presidency

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Sports

Addressing the name of the Washington, D.C. football franchise, President Barack Obama, likely motivated by the right sentiments, was led by his instinctual wishy-washiness to take the weakest possible version of his own position, only to be bailed out by the total, tone-deaf intransigence of his adversary. It’s his whole presidency in a nutshell.

“If I were the owner of the team,” Obama told the Associated Press this weekend, “and I knew that there was a name of my team—even if it had a storied history—that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it.” (This magazine’s policy is not to publish the Washington team’s name. You can see it and its attendant logo here.)

Wait but didn’t you hear about some poll that said most Native Americans aren’t offended by the Washington team’s name? Yes, and there is another poll that says most Americans do not care. Washington owner Dan Snyder’s spokesperson Lanny Davis—Clinton hack, false-equivalence peddler, former lobbyist for a violently authoritarian dictatorcited them both in his rebuttal. The former poll, which found 91 percent of Native Americans were not bothered by the name, was taken almost ten years ago and has not-great methodology. The second poll, from this year, did find 79 percent of Americans do not believe the name needs to change. You will be shocked to learn that if you are a person of color, according to this latter poll, you are twice as likely to believe it should be changed.

Still, so much for Obama’s “a sizeable group of people,” right? Well, yes, actually. Which is why Obama’s argument is so annoying. It’s dumb, and it’s the wrong one. The fact that a bunch of people are offended by something—even the people whom the thing in question seems designed to offend—doesn’t necessarily mean much. A lot of people are offended by a lot of things. Well-intentioned people can be wrongly offended by something, whether due to misunderstanding or thin skin. If you don’t believe me, check any blog comments section.

The problem with the Washington team’s name is not that “a sizeable group of people” is offended by it (and Davis’s claim that this group does not exist does not solve the name’s problem). The problem with the name is that it is objectively offensive, in a way that can be explained via appeals to externally legitimate criteria like linguistics and history. The name was instituted by former Washington owner George Preston Marshall, a legendary racist who made his team the final one to integrate. The name is a racist slur. The name makes a mascot of a type of person who is distinguished by the non-white color of his skin. And so on. Tomasky was smart on this: “This recent poll that 79 percent of Americans aren’t bothered by the team’s name doesn’t impress me,” he wrote. “All it means is that 79 percent of Americans need a history lesson.”

Obama didn’t say that, though. He made a spurious suggestion based on easily disputable forensic evidence that sought to appeal democratically to an un-democratically appointed football team owner. And yet I still suspect this will be viewed as a win for him, partly because he is on the right side of right-thinking public opinion and partly because his foils are one of the worst owners in sports and Lanny freakin’ Davis. He was lucky—and, maybe, wise—in his enemies. Yet again.