NFL officials to meet with Oneida tribe, but owners won’t urge Redskins to drop name

As NFL owners meet at one Washington, D.C. hotel, members of the Oneida Nation gather at another hotel, asking that the Washington Redskins change their name. They say the name is a"painful epithet." Team owner Daniel Snyder has said he would never change the name. (The Washington Post)

NFL officials will meet with the Native American group that is campaigning against the name of the Washington Redskins and hosted a symposium Monday on the issue a mile away from where league owners began gathering for a fall meeting.

“They know we’re not going away,” said Ray Halbritter, a representative for the Oneida Indian Nation. He called the meeting with the National Football League “a move in the right direction.”

The symposium comes three days after President Obamatook a stance in the long-standing debate, saying that if he were the team’s owner, he would think about changing the name.

The Oneida Nation launched the “Change the Mascot” campaign a few months ago, drawing inspiration from a high school in its back yard that dropped the “Redskins” moniker. Since then, the New York tribe has emerged as one of the strongest forces behind the growing push to scrap the Washington team’s 80-year-old name, scheduling radio ads to run in every city the Redskins visit this season.

Its conference, held at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, featured a panel of speakers that included the head of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, a psychologist who spoke about the public health consequences of the word, student activists and politicians — Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton(D-D.C.).

“I can think of no argument for retaining a name that directly insults Americans and especially our first Americans,” said Holmes Norton, speaking as a third-generation Washingtonian.

She said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell showed leadership last month when he stepped back from his earlier defense of the team’s name and said, “If one person’s offended, we have to listen.”

Nevertheless, no formal discussion of the Washington Redskins’ name is expected among NFL owners who are gathering at another Ritz-Carlton in Washington for a one-day meeting Tuesday, according to two people familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

They said they sense little or no sentiment within the league to urge Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to make a change.

NFL officials were invited to the Native American symposium, but none attended the event, Halbritter said. But he said he was encouraged that Goodell had instructed Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president for labor policy and government affairs, to schedule a meeting. The sit-down is scheduled for Nov. 22 at the league’s offices, but two sources said it could be held sooner.

On Monday, as NFL franchise owners began arriving for their Tuesday gathering, several declined comment on the name-change issue.

Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy, who once played for the Redskins, was the athletic director at Colgate when the school changed the name of its athletic teams from Red Raiders to Raiders in 2001. But he declined to speak Monday on the controversy.

 

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“I’d rather not get into it,” Murphy said.

Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie also declined to comment.

In May, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder told USA Today, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

In the months since, a string of prominent sports writers has stop penning the word. A group led by a former Federal Communications Commission chairman announced an effort to persuade broadcasters to stop saying the name on the airwaves. And a decision is expected soon in a lawsuit aimed at revoking the federal trademark protection of the team’s name.

Kevin Gover, who heads the American Indian museum and whose son is a plaintiff in the trademark case, said the Oneida Nation has long been a powerful force in the American Indian community and that the tribe’s involvement in the name-change issue has only elevated the conversation. He said he has little doubt that NFL officials, even if none attended the symposium, were listening to what was said.

“Like all major industries, the NFL is very interested in its public image,” Gover said, “and when there is a challenge to that public image, the NFL is inclined to respond.”

During Monday’s event, Gover — who wrote a letter to The Washington Post about the offensiveness of the name when he was a high school senior in 1973 — spoke about how as a child he was called “redskin” and doesn’t understand why, unlike other racial slurs, the word has not become off limits.

Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist who has researched the effects of stigma and discrimination, said the word amounts to harassment and causes mental and physical harm to a population that already faces higher rates of depression, alcoholism, suicide, diabetes and infant mortality.

“This is a public health issue,” he said. “This is not a political correctness issue.”

Also on the panel were two students from Cooperstown High School and the school board’s president, who earlier this year were behind the decision to change the school’s team from the Redskins to the Hawkeyes. The Oneida Nation later paid for the school’s new uniforms.

The tribe, which has about 1,000 members, has prospered in the casino and resort business and has pledged $10 million over 10 years to the American Indian museum.

The tribe also sponsors the Buffalo Bills and has a “vested interest in the league being a unifying force,” Halbritter said.

“As an Indian nation that values the idea of mutual respect, we only have one simple objective in all of this,” Halbritter said. “We no longer want to be treated as targets of racial slurs. We don’t want our children to be treated as targets of racial slurs. We want to be treated as what we are: Americans.”

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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