What’s in a name? For D.C.’s NFL team, yards of controversy

10/11/2013 2:57 PM

12/12/2013 12:44 PM

It’s not just a good old West rivalry anymore.

The symbolism of a Dallas Cowboys-vs.-Washington Redskins football game Sunday couldn’t come at a worse time for the capital’s embattled National Football League team owner, Daniel Snyder.

The Redskins team name is under fire as never before for being a racial slur, as critics, from President Barack Obama to Native American groups to prominent sportswriters, decry the use of what many view an offensive term for the franchise.

“This is not going to go away,” Ray Halbritter, an Oneida Indian Nation representative, said in an interview. “The momentum is building. We’re at a tipping point.”

The Oneida Nation, a tribe in upstate New York, is at the forefront of the protests with a “Change the Mascot” campaign that sponsors radio ads about the name in every city that the Redskins play. It is airing one this week on Dallas-Fort Worth’s KRLD-FM called “Bipartisan,” for the bipartisan opposition to the name, citing critical comments from Obama and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who has Native American heritage.

An increasing number of sportswriters refuse to write or say the name, preferring neutral terms like “Washington NFL team.” Sports Illustrated writer Peter King and USA Today writer Christine Brennan, who covered the team for the Washington Post in the 1980s, recently announced they won’t use it.

The Kansas City Star, a McClatchy newspaper, has not used the name for a decade.

“The term is patently offensive and insulting to some percentage of Native Americans,” said Jeff Rosen, the Star’s associate managing editor-sports. “That alone was enough for us to stop using it.”

Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise, a relentless opponent of the name for years, wrote Monday, “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ anymore, but rather ‘when.’”

It was Obama speaking out Oct. 5 in an interview with the Associated Press that inflamed the already simmering issue.

“I’ve got to say, if I were the owner of the team and I knew that the name of my team, even if they’ve had a storied history, that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” the president said.

Snyder, who had famously told USA Today in May that he would never change the name, “never . . . you can use all caps,” took four days to react to the president. On Oct. 9 he issued a letter to the team’s fans that was more conciliatory to the critics but didn’t actually budge from his position.

“I respect the opinions of those who disagree,” he wrote. “I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn. But we cannot ignore our 81-year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country. After 81 years, the team name ‘Redskins’ continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.”

Snyder is increasingly isolated, however, as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has to field questions about the controversy, often from very opinionated sportswriters like Wise, who says the financial pressure from sponsors will be next.

Goodell and NFL officials had already planned a meeting Nov. 22 with the Oneida Nation to learn more about Native Americans’ concerns, but that is now “hopefully” being moved up, said Halbritter.

At an NFL team owners’ meeting Monday in Washington, Goodell and league owners, including Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, faced questions about the controversy. Even the Cowboys and Redskins coaches were asked about the name at press conferences leading up to Sunday’s nationally televised game, events usually limited to discussions about game strategy and player updates.

Jones talked about it earlier this week on his radio show on 105.3FM KRLD The Fan: “All team names have always been a positive attempt at the namesake. The intent is very positive. I’m very sensitive and we should always listen to those that feel that you’re being insensitive.”

In his letter to the fans, Snyder quoted from a 2004 poll of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which found that 90 percent of nearly 800 people who identified themselves as Native Americans did not find the team name “offensive.”

But Halbritter and others reject the idea that a poll stands in the way of how they feel. “Our people are offended,” he said. “It hurts people.”

In a response to Snyder, he wrote, “The marketing of this racial slur has had – and continues to have – very serious cultural, political, and public health consequences for my people and Native Americans everywhere.”

Halbritter also said that, as for the team’s storied history, the original team owner, George Preston Marshall, advocated segregation and that the Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate, in 1962.

The name is also the subject of a trademark violation lawsuit by a group of Native Americans. A ruling is pending from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office over the name being offensive and a racial slur.

But with Snyder’s promise to keep listening, Oneida’s Halbritter said he has invited the team owner to come to the reservation.

“During his visit, we will organize a special meeting of Oneida Nation families where Mr. Snyder can personally explain to them why he believes they deserve to be called ‘redskins,’” he said.

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