Friday was one of those days in U.S. history when, whatever your political persuasion, it seemed like an established fact of this country's life was cemented forever, and what was once was no more. Americans' views on gay marriage and on the Confederate flag have been evolving and progressing for a few decades now, and on Friday, you finally felt the tectonic plates shift. There will always be holdouts to history, stragglers constricted by their own deep-seated predilections and traditions, who hang on for dear life for a world that is gone, but their nail-dragging insistence proves the point: They're the ones standing behind while the rest of us move on.
On Face the Nation Sunday, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention admitted that, on the issue of gay marriage, "it's an uphill battle for us, no question." There's an acceptance, even in defiance. Even long-time stalwarts see the direction the world's going. The governor of South Carolina, a woman who has proudly shown off her concealed weapons permit for more than a decade and was a Tea Party favorite, is the primary figure in taking down the Confederate flag over the South Carolina capital. You can only fight history so long.
This is how it's always worked. When they are teenagers, my sons will be baffled that gay marriage was ever illegal in the same way I was baffled when I was a teen that interracial marriage had ever been banned or that black people ever had to use separate water fountains and sit at the back of the bus. Today's controversy is tomorrow's normal life. Maybe you love the Confederate flag -- and it's worth noting that most of the friends of this Georgia resident have been ready for the flag to be out of their lives for years -- and maybe you're against gay marriage, but you can't deny the direction of the wind: Even longtime advocates are realizing these are battles they can't win. Maybe you like that and maybe you don't, but pretending it is not the case is denying reality.
Which brings us, perhaps inevitably, to the closest thing the world of sports has to the Confederate flag: The logo and nickname of the Washington Football Team.
Like the flag (and, to a lesser extent, gay marriage being illegal), it is an issue that:
1. Once didn't seem like much of an issue at all. "Yeah, that's the name and logo of the team. It has always been that. What's the problem?"
2. Slowly began to be targeted as a problem, first by specialty advocate groups. As the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg pointed out, the Post first ran a story about Native Americans being offended by the name in 1972. Those people were mostly ignored.
3. Gains traction as the years go along and more people get educated on what, precisely, the issue is, and why it feels so unjust to so many.
4. Explodes in the age of social media activism.
5. Eventually reaches a point when even the defenders of the practice (raising the Confederate flag, banning gay marriage, keeping the team nickname) can no longer justify the energy required to keep fighting the turn of history.
Now, there are obviously quite a few differences here. First, the flag and gay marriage had defining incidents: The shooting in Charleston coalesced public opinion on the former issue, and the Supreme Court's ruling nailed down what had been coming for so long with the latter. Also, it's worth pointing out that public opinion, despite the efforts of the advocates and an increasingly high percentage of the news media, is not actually against the Washington Football Team's name; a poll last October said only 14 percent of Americans believe the team should change its name. Also: The Confederate flag and gay marriage are actual state issues, on matters funded by our own government; the Washington Football Team is funded by a tiny, sad little man.
But, of course, the state has considerable power over this, and not just because the team plays in Washington, D.C. President Obama has been against the name for several years now, and last year the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office stripped the team of its trademark, a decision that the team is still appealing. But, in another parallel, the Supreme Court ruled just last week that the state of Texas did not have to issue license plates with the Confederate flag on them, a ruling that many experts think directly affects the Redskins' appeal, in a negative fashion.
More to the point, regardless of public opinion -- which has a tendency, as we saw with gay marriage, to change incredibly quickly on issues like this -- every bit of momentum is against the team and those who want to keep the name. Political scientist Andrew Gelman wrote about this difference between "position" and "momentum," claiming, "the policy is congruent with public opinion, but there definitely is a sense that the supporters of the team name are on the retreat ... there's something about a change in opinion that has an effect, distinct from the average level." He compares it to the death penalty: The death penalty is still both legal and popular … but it's without question under heavy fire and being implemented less often than almost any time in American history.
And these things do happen fast: A terrific story in The New York Times Monday showed how quickly the Confederate flag issue went from "sorry, there's nothing that can be done" to "take the flag down." Of course, that had a horrific instigating event. It's difficult (and unpleasant) to imagine what such an event involving the Washington Football Team might be.
But the point is that, as we saw with both the Confederate flag and the anti-gay marriage movement, eventually opposition becomes so overwhelming that denying what's coming begins to seem faintly ridiculous. At this point, only zealots are fighting history. The Washington Football Team's name isn't quite at that point yet, but the opponents are gaining in power and number: You've got the federal government, the news media, a growing number of advocates and fans, more and more actual players (including perhaps the most vocal, most influential NFL player of them all) and the clearly potent push of history … against Dan Snyder and a bunch of tired lawyers.
You can be a supporter of the Washington Football Team name; there's nothing wrong with you, it doesn't make you a bad person, even if you get all Chris Cooley crazy about it. But it's probably time to start getting realistic about this: Eventually, you are going to lose. This is just the way history works. These days, it just works that much faster. Someday, it's going to seem insane the team was ever named what it is named now. That "someday" is probably coming sooner than you think.