Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Chuck Klosterman has written before about the use of Native American iconography in the names of sports teams, but unless you attended the University of North Dakota in the early 1990s (or have access to the Dakota Student’s physical archive), you’ve probably never read it.
It’s an issue that seems to sit squarely in his strike zone. Since making his name nationally as a music and pop-culture writer, Klosterman’s scope has expanded. He served for nearly three years as The Ethicist for New York Times Magazine, wrote a novel using invisibility as a metaphor for privacy and surveillance, and a nonfiction book on the theme of villains and bad guys that still had the pop-culture bent and breezy prose of Klosterman’s earlier work.
His new book, But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past, continues that trend. The book, as the title promises, looks at assumptions we make in lots of different areas of life, and presupposes what might happen when we find out we’re wrong about them, the same way ideas (e.g., gravity, Moby-Dick being a terrible book, etc.) throughout history become outdated and ridiculous in hindsight.
“What I tried to do is think about the present tense as if I was looking back on it,” Klosterman explains, “trying to look on the present as if it was history and use that criteria, because that criteria is different.”
One chapter is dedicated, for example, to the future of football in America. It focuses on the question of if the sport will even exist in the future, given what we now know about the risks the game presents to its participants. The topic of team names that reference Native Americans is not mentioned in this chapter.
The Washington football team is mentioned once in the book, but only in passing, as Klosterman attempts to work out what sort of person might be viewed (from the future) as a “contemporary Kafka”—i.e., a writer who is unnoticed in their own lifetime but revered in retrospect. In discussing the possibility that this retro-Kafka will come from a marginalized subculture, Klosterman considers the possibility of a Native American.
“Outside the anguish expressed over the use of the term ‘Redskin’ by the Washington football franchise,” he writes, “it’s hard to find conversation about the biases facing Native Americans; outside the TV show Fargo, you almost never see it reflected in the popular culture.”
That’s it. That’s the full extent of Klosterman’s current published writing on the subject. Which seemed odd to me, because the ongoing debate is remarkably well-suited to his contrarian style in general, and to the new book in particular.
“It actually fits into multiple arguments,” he says when I suggest that, “because it’s kind of about football, but it’s also very much about politics. It is to a degree about literature, or, sort of, arts criticism and how the way we view language changes over time. It’s probably a pretty good cross-section of a lot of the ideas in this book.”
The core of Klosterman’s approach in the book comes down to the idea that if you can see a logical chain of events leading to a future point of view, it’s probably not what will happen. Using that as a guideline, I spent a phone call with Klosterman batting the ongoing name discussion back and forth, with possible future outcomes becoming progressively more outlandish as we eliminated logical possibilities.
Here’s a few of the ways the debate about the local football squad’s name could wind up, assuming that all parties involved are wrong about everything.
The simple version, wherein the name eventually changes but remnants of the old name stick around. “I don’t know at an NBA game if there are people wearing Bullets jerseys,” Klosterman says, “but if there are it’s because they love Wes Unseld. They don’t love bullets.” But this is a fairly unremarkable bit of futurecasting, and therefore not what we’re looking for.
The version where football becomes a niche sport. This is one of Klosterman’s two possible paths for the NFL itself: Either, he says, “Football survives because of its violence and it takes on a political meaning that suggests a certain kind of ideology about life,” or all sports disappear because they don’t reflect how we raise kids in modern society. In the version where football becomes much smaller, Klosterman speculates, “this idea of the Redskin name being part of tradition becomes a stronger argument, at least to the people in that group, in that they’re saying that football is the way to kind of tie back into a world that has changed, and whatever that world was is what we want to perpetuate.” In the other version, where sports cease to exist, the name debate stands as just another example of why. But both of these tie in to specific external events. What if football continues more or less as we know it now?
The version where a Native American owner takes control of the team. In this hypothetical future, Dan Snyder loses control of the team somehow, and a wealthy Native American entrepreneur scoops it up… and decides to keep the name as a way of reclaiming the word and keeping the team’s traditions in place. “It’s very easy to argue with Dan Snyder about pretty much anything,” Klosterman points out, “but it’d be pretty difficult to argue with a Native American owner about keeping the Redskins name.”
One weird semiotic possibility. What if football sticks around for a hundred years and the word is just totally detached from all meaning? Klosterman compares this to the Georgetown sports teams. “A Hoya is… something,” Klosterman says, and then we spent an embarrassing amount of time unsure as to if the word “hoya” has anything to do with bulldogs or not. (It doesn’t. The teams were called “Hoyas” in the 1920s, based on a cheer the students used in the late 19th century. All of which makes this possible path seem perfectly feasible, and therefore clearly wrong.)
An even weirder semiotic possibility. “If this was part of my book,” Klosterman says, “the larger question would be something that goes beyond that singular debate. Like, is the whole idea of sports teams having nicknames kind of weird? Will that be some kind of relic that we’ll look back on and be like, ‘It’s really bizarre that they’d play these games and name themselves after animals and after weather to somehow signify who they were?’ That might seem very strange to people in a distant future: that somehow the people of Detroit saw themselves represented by lions, an animal that does not exist on this continent.”
The weirdest possibility of all: Dan Snyder has a sudden change of heart and changes the name himself. Klosterman once found himself in a word-usage dilemma, when the mother of a child with Down syndrome pointed out that he had regularly and dismissively deployed the other R-word pretty carelessly. Klosterman’s response was to apologize bluntly, to promise to do better in the future, and to make a donation to a charity of the woman’s choice. So, I suggest, what if Snyder took a similarly sincere tactic?
Klosterman initially suggests that it would do no good—that scorn for Snyder is too ingrained. But then he reconsiders. “Maybe I’m being too cynical,” he says. “Maybe people would be, like, ‘Great, he’s woke.’ That would be the meme: Woke Dan Snyder. There would be some story out there like, ‘Can you believe how woke Dan Snyder is?’ and there would be pictures of him with Beyoncé.”
We didn’t reach a firm conclusion. But if Klosterman’s book can be boiled down to the idea that, as he writes, “the best hypothesis is the one that reflexively accepts its potential wrongness to begin with”—to oversimplify, the one that seems the most improbable based on current trends—then Woke Dan Snyder seems like a good way to bet.
Chuck Klosterman reads at 7 p.m. Friday at Politics & Prose. Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @matt_terl.