NFL executives meet with Oneida Indian who supports Redskins name

National Football League executives spoke Friday to an Oneida Indian who told them he was not offended by the name of Washington’s football team, offering a starkly different perspective than the one they heard last week during a meeting with the Native American leader from the same New York tribe.

The conversation between NFL officials and Melvin Phillips was arranged by his attorney, Claudia Tenney, a New York state assemblywoman who has been a vocal critic of Ray Halbritter, the Oneida Indian Nation representative who is behind a national campaign to change the team’s name.

Tenney, who also participated in the conversation, which occurred over Skype, said it took place with Jeff Pash and Adolpho Birch, two of the three NFL vice presidents who met with Halbritter and other Oneida representatives Oct. 30.

“I think we enlightened them,” said Tenney, a Republican who represents Oneida County in the state legislature. “Their eyes were wide open and their ears were wide open. They asked a lot of questions and they took a lot of notes.”

“We had a thoughtful and thorough discussion with Mr. Phillips and Ms. Tenney,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. “It is important to listen to different perspectives on this matter.”

Melvin Phillips, who has been in a long-running legal dispute over land with the tribe, said he told the NFL that if people were mocking Indians, he might be offended. “But these people play football, and all of America loves football,” he said.

At their meeting, Halbritter and other Oneida representatives presented a letter calling on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to take specific actions, including amending the league’s bylaws to prohibit naming teams with dictionary-defined racial slurs and referring team owner Daniel Snyder to the league’s executive committee for possible sanctions should he continue to promote a name that is “clearly ‘detrimental to the welfare’ of the NFL’s image.”

As of Friday, the Oneida Indian Nation had not received a response, spokesman Joel Barkin said.

Still, Barkin described the week as “momentous” for the tribe’s “Change the Mascot” campaign, pointing to the growing number of voices, including the mayor of Minneapolis and the governor of Minnesota, who have spoken out against the “R-word.”

“The mounting support demonstrates that this is not going away, and neither is our campaign to end the use of this derogatory slur,” he said.

The decades-long debate around the team’s name has heightened in recent months with everyone from sports commentators to President Obama picking a side. On Thursday night, hundreds of people gathered at the Redskins-Vikings game in Minneapolis to protest the name. And this week, two governing bodies in the Washington area took opposing positions on the issue.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council approved a resolution that called for changing a name that is “insulting and debasing.” A day later, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors adopted its own resolution, defending the team’s right to choose its own moniker.

The resolution in Loudoun — where the team’s headquarters and practice facility are located and where many of the coaches and players live — didn’t touch on whether the name was offensive. Instead, it affirmed “their right as an organization to weigh customer input and take action in the best interest of the corporation with regard to their brand.”

Snyder has said he will never change the name and described it in a recent letter to fans as a “badge of honor.” NFL commissioner Goodell has said the decision over the team’s name is ultimately Snyder’s but that if one person is offended, the league should listen.

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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