Monday, September 15, 2014

Caught by surprise

The other day at work, I suddenly and surprisingly found myself in the middle of a journalistic battlefield.

I was working on the night's High School Extra for the newspaper, a daily roundup of some of the results from the prep schedule on a particular day. It's a handy way of giving publicity to all/any achievements in some of the "other" sports - which means anything but football at this time of year and is not meant to demean those who participate in soccer, cross-country etc.

It was a light night, and there was something going on with the Bills that night - a sale of some sort, as I remember - that guaranteed I wouldn't have much space to fill. It's a good thing, because exciting finishes or good stories were few and far between. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't.

In order to start the column of notes, I talked to a coach of a local high school about her young team. She was quite articulate and gave me a few good quotes for my story.

Now comes the catch - the team in question was from Lancaster Central High School.

That may not send off alarm bells for those living outside the area. But those who know a little about Western New York know that Lancaster's athletic teams are called the Redskins. That, as you may have heard, is the same name of a Washington football team that has journalists and announcers boycotting the use of the team name while writing for print/Internet or talking for broadcast.

While a few newspapers have announced that they would not permit the use of Redskins on the pages, The Buffalo News has not taken that step. Still, some writers have said in public they will not use the R-word.

It's an issue that has been out there for quite a while, at least with me. At some point, I wondered how the team name could be allowed if at least some of the affected parties - in this case, the Native population - found the word offensive. And at least a portion of them on a national basis do. Put it this way - would you use the word "redskin" in conversation when describing anything but a sports team? Of course not.

At one point, I asked Sabres' coach Ted Nolan about the matter. He said the reaction in the Native community was interesting. There were some who wanted all such nicknames, which could include Indians, Braves, Warriors, etc., to be thrown into the ashcan of history. Other Natives could care less. Nolan went on to say that he didn't mind Braves and Warriors, but that Redskins was over his personal line.

When did I ask this question? In 1997. So this has been simmering for a while.

A few years later, I ran into a speaker at the lodge of Glacier National Park. He was of Native heritage, and took a great deal of pride in the Redskins' name. He collected Redskins' merchandise, including an expensive embroidered jacket, and followed the team closely from Montana.

Lancaster High got drawn into the discussion a couple of years ago, surprisingly late as these things go. There's been some discussion there about changing the name,and some current and former athletes say the name represents a link to the long tradition of the school's athletic history. But some other schools in New York with the same or similar team names have changed them in recent years. The Lancaster school board just had a public forum to talk about the issue in the near future, and sure enough it was lively. Some of the few Natives in Lancaster didn't mind, while others said they were quite uncomfortable. Naturally, there are Facebook groups on both sides.

How did I handle it while on the job? It was actually easy to use Lancaster as a first reference in the story, and then quote the coach talking about the team - using the words team or squad. Therefore, "Redskins" or even " 'Skins" did not appear in the story. However, if this were a 20-paragraph story on the team, I might use Redskins for the sake of writing convenience since there is no overriding directive on the subject. Meanwhile, while editing an NFL story, there was a note on Washington quarterback Robert Griffin - and we use the team nickname on first reference in such roundups. So Redskins' quarterback Robert Griffin it was.

In other words, it's a decision that's above my paygrade and up to the my bosses. But I won't go out of my way to use it, and I'll be quite happy when the R-word isn't used officially any more and can thus leave my vocabulary without fanfare. That day is coming, and soon.

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