Yesterday the Washington Post ran a headline, based on some polling they had requested, that said "New Poll finds 9 in 10 Native Americans aren't offended by Redskins Name." This was pretty shocking to lots of people and led many sports talking heads to say something along the lines of "well, I guess it's not as bad as I thought it was."
My first thought was about the margin of error, which no one was reporting. As a political science major in college, I can remember back, vaguely in some cases, to a class I took on political polling, and the one thing I definitely remember was being told that any poll that had a margin of error greater than 3-3.5% was meaningless.
It was meaningless because the sample size was not big enough to actually provide you with information that was readily applicable across the entire spectrum of the polling sample. There are exceptions to this rule, one of the biggest being for small local samples and local polling. But, that's not what this poll was for nor what it claimed to represent, which was a cross-section of the entire country and how Native Americans felt about the name. So just on the margin of error I'm going to say don't take this poll to mean anything, and I highly doubt they would have run a presidential poll with a margin of error being this high.
The next thing to pay attention to in polling is the questions that are asked, because it's really easy to sway people to say the things you want them to say simply by how you word the questions. So, my next step was to look at the questions, which the Washington Post was good enough to provide.
If you were going to run a poll seeking the Native American response to a question, what would be the first question you asked? I would think it would be "Are you Native American?" They never asked that question. Let that sink in for a moment. Instead the first question they asked was "Are your currently enrolled as a member with a Native American tribe?" A decent follow-up to the first question they should have asked, but still only 44% answered in the affirmative. But they do say that the answers were the thoughts of "ordinary Indians." I guess that's in comparison to the extraordinary ones?
Even more puzzling was the fact that of those polled 56% of the respondents said they knew "not much" or "nothing at all" about the debate that's been going around about changing the name of the Washington football team. I suppose it's possible that more than half really had not been following this story which is decades old and extends to college and high school mascots, including tribes considering the appropriateness of their own mascots as well, but I find that really hard to believe.
Finally, contrary to the headline, 21% of those polled said they consider the word "redskin disrespectful to Native Americans." If we did a poll that said that only 21% of African-Americans considered the N-word to be disrespectful would we then conclude that it was therefore okay for everyone, especially whites, to begin saying the N-word? Of course we wouldn't because it is still offensive to a not statistically insignificant portion of the population.
Let me phrase this another way. What would the response have been if the headline, instead of using the term Native American, had instead said "New poll finds 9 in 10 Redskins do not find the name Redskins offensive"? I suspect the response would have been one of offense, and so if we don't/won't/can't use it in reference to a group of people in a headline then we shouldn't use it in naming a sports team.