I was probably six or seven years old when I realized my grandfather used an offensive term to describe African-Americans.
He used it as a noun. He used it as a verb. He even used it when talking to the very people most offended by the term.
We were driving in his truck from one farm to another when he saw an older black man walking beside the road. My grandfather told me to roll down my window as he pulled over. "Hey, Nate you old (offensive term)," he yelled across. "Hop in the back and we'll give you a ride."
I froze. I was young but knew the word was wrong, and calling someone that word was really wrong.
Later I asked him why he said it. "What do you mean?" he said, looking surprised. "What's wrong with that? It's just a word. He didn't care." My grandfather clearly thought nothing of it, and apparently -- to my naive eyes, at least -- neither did Nate.
But, probably a year later, one person did care. We were at a store and as we walked past my grandfather used the word in greeting.
"Mr. Smith?" the man said in response. My grandfather turned. "Please don't call me that," the man said.
My grandfather stared for a moment, then nodded. "I'm sorry, Joe," he said, and Joe nodded back.
When we were in the truck I said, "Didn't you say there was nothing wrong with that word?"
My grandfather drove in silence for a long time. "I don't think there is anything wrong with it," he finally said. "But a man has a right to be called what he wants to be called."
If this was a different story I would say that my grandfather never again used the n-word, but this is not that kind of story. He was a product of his time and upbringing and environment, and therefore wrong in many ways, but he was right about one thing: people have the right to be called what they want to be called.
Which brings us to the Washington Redskins.
For years the name "redskins" has been a point of controversy. Opponents of the name have gathered significant support from U.S. senators, from President Obama, from broadcasters and columnists, from civil rights organizations, and from tribal leaders.
In response, team owner Daniel Snyder once vowed to USA Today that he would never change the name. "NEVER," he said, "... you can use all caps."
His position on the team's name -- and the opposition to that name -- is not only a public relations issue, it's problematic at a business level. There's an ongoing legal battle over the team's federal trademark registrations as well as the destination of the next stadium; the name controversy has impacted discussions between the team and the District of Columbia, considered by many where Snyder hopes to one day build.
But the results of a new Washington Post poll appear to support Snyder's position. Nine out of ten Native Americans surveyed say they aren't offended by the team's name. Still, some aren't convinced.
According to this article, Suzan Harjo, the plaintiff in the trademark case, said, "I just reject the results. I don't agree with them, and I don't agree that this is a valid way of surveying public opinion in Indian Country."
Other leaders, instead of questioning the results, took a different slant on how those results are interpreted.
Again quoting the Post article: "Native Americans are resilient and have not allowed the NFL's decades-long denigration of us to define our own self-image," Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Nation and and Jacqueline Pata of the National Congress of American Indians wrote. "However, that proud resilience does not give the NFL a license to continue marketing, promoting, and profiting off of a dictionary-defined racial slur-one that tells people outside of our community to view us as mascots."
From a business perspective there are a number of issues. Changing the name would mean significant changes to branding and licensed products; Washington is the third most valuable NFL franchise at $2.85 billion. And some fans will resent the change. On the flip side, changing the name might make stadium location negotiations easier and eliminate an ongoing public relations problem.
There's a further upside to changing the name. I feel sure (although I can't say for sure) that, like most companies, the Washington organization talks internally about valuing diversity and inclusion... making it really hard to walk your talk when your team name is considered to be offensive by many, even those not directly involved. (Do you think your employees would believe you if you say, "We value diversity and strive to create an inclusive environment," and your official company nickname is "redskins"?)
And there's one more reason.
Imagine, like in the case of my grandfather, someone said to you, "Please don't call me (that)." How would you respond?
Would you argue? Would you defend your right to free speech under the First Amendment? Would you use concepts like heritage and tradition as a justification? Would you claim that political correctness has stifled individual opinion?
I doubt it. Confronted with the reality, confronted with a real person and not an abstract, you would see that individual's right to not be called a particular word as vastly more important than your right to use that word.
I understand the connection people have to the team's name. I understand it's important to many people. Ultimately, though, sports are interesting -- and diverting, and entertaining, and a host of other things -- but they're not important.
Sports team names are even less important. To fans a team nickname is just a word. If you're a die-hard Carolina fan, would you stop rooting for the team if they were no longer the Panthers? Of course you wouldn't.
To a few people, though, a team name means much more, signifying a lack of respect and a resulting loss of dignity. Would you call a person that name to his or her face? Of course you wouldn't.
Treating people -- all people -- with respect and dignity is not just good business.
It's the right thing to do.