Schimmel, name fight are inspirational
'Redskins' debate avoids real issues
At its purest, sport is a meritocracy. If you can play, coaches will want you and fans will cheer for you. Sometimes that can be uplifting, as it was when Nets fans rose at the Barclays Center to cheer for newly signed Jason Collins, entering a game for the first time as an openly gay man. It can also be infuriating, as general managers, coaches and fans forgive and forget criminal acts because the perpetrator is a top scorer or a perennial Pro Bowler.
Because of their popularity, professional sports teams and the athletes who play for them can be extremely powerful influencers in our country. Over the years, people like Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and Billie Jean King have broken through barriers to achieve great success in the sporting world and helped bring about significant change socially as well.
Sports can provide a similar space for Native Americans to proudly represent their heritage and push for needed social awareness and equality of treatment. The growing noise surrounding the Redskins' name has certainly shone a bright light on the plight of Native Americans, particularly for an audience of people who may not otherwise be invested in their interests.
Late last week, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said he'll likely let his network's on-air talent decide for themselves whether to use the name Redskins when speaking about Washington's NFL franchise.
Three days after McManus' comments, Native American Shoni Schimmel, rookie guard for the Atlanta Dream, took MVP honors at the WNBA All-Star Game. Schimmel, who grew up on a reservation in the small Oregon town of Mission, is inspiring future generations of Native Americans every time she hits the court.
"In Indian country, she is changing lives," her mother, Ceci, told espnW's Mechelle Voepel. "They look up to her. We've gotten letters from girls who say they are inspired to do things because of her."
It may not be the loudest or most powerful voice just yet, but sports are a voice for Native Americans. With many fighting for a name change in Washington and so many others practicing their reverse layups in honor of Schimmel, it seems to be growing louder each day.
If sports were a real voice, there would have been more talk about Shoni Schimmel than Sean McManus this past week.
On July 16, The Hollywood Reporter published an interview with CBS Sports chairman McManus in which he said that the network would allow announcers to decide for themselves whether to use the name of the Washington, D.C. NFL franchise. It was the most recent ground claimed in a standoff that has seen some media outlets eliminate usage of the name and team owner Daniel Snyder make clear his intention to maintain it.
Three days later, Atlanta Dream rookie Schimmel, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, was named WNBA All-Star Game MVP after she scored 29 points. Although the performance set an All-Star record, it was hardly surprising. The bigger the stage, the more likely Schimmel seems to do something that deserves a curtain call.
She offered a voice for the Native American experience. Too many people listened only to McManus.
Go to just about any game Schimmel plays and you will hear voices that matter, be it Schimmel's or those of the Native American fans who travel hundreds of miles or more to watch her. They come to celebrate her, and by extension, to celebrate themselves. But they will also talk about why it means something to celebrate. They will talk about the lack of educational and athletic opportunities, especially among girls, that Native Americans face. They will talk about a poverty rate that is nearly twice the national average, about rampant unemployment and health crises.
Schimmel's is the voice that sparks a meaningful conversation, not one about who can and can't tiptoe around a word.
What Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby did wasn't about changing language. Billie Jean King helped give a group of people a voice through sports. So will Jason Collins and Michael Sam. So should Schimmel and Tahnee Robinson, who grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation and was selected in the 2011 WNBA draft.
Whether it stems from genuine soul-searching or the pragmatism of market pressure, it will be a good day when the football team in Washington gets a new name. Even Schimmel has added her voice in the past to those hoping for that change. But sports will offer a real voice for Native Americans only when the conversation is about more than that.