President Obama says, ‘I’d think about changing’ name of Washington Redskins

It was supposed to be the last word: Never.

But the decades-long argument over the name of Washington’s football team, the Redskins, has only grown louder since owner Daniel M. Snyder vowed in May he would never — “you can use caps” — change it.

The newest voice emerged Saturday: President Obama.

“If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” Obama said in an interview published by the Associated Press on Saturday.

Obama is only the latest to weigh in. Prominent sports journalists have announced they will refrain from using the name. A Native American tribe in New York has launched a national ad campaign. On Monday, it will hold a public conference near the Washington hotel where National Football League owners are meeting. And, in a move that has been described as potentially more significant than any lawsuit or legislation — both of which are also in the works — a group led by a former Federal Communications Commission chairman is working to persuade broadcasters to stop saying the name on the airwaves.

But the willingness of the president, the nation’s most influential sports fan, to weigh in has raised the protracted debate to a new level of prominence.

“As the first sitting president to speak out against the Washington team name, President Obama’s comments today are historic,” said Ray Halbritter, a representative for the Oneida Indian Nation, which has launched a “Change the Mascot” campaign against the team. “The use of such an offensive term has negative consequences for the Native American community when it comes to issues of self-identity and imagery.”

Yet even with opposing voices growing in numbers and power, key constituencies are absent from the name-change bandwagon: many of the nation’s 5.2 million Native Americans, the NFL, advertisers and the football team’s die-hard fans. When candidates at the Virginia gubernatorial debate were asked about the issue at a recent debate, neither took a position on it.

Some changes

Redskins fans have, for decades, watched the team slowly shed pieces of its Indian-themed imagery.

Cheerleaders no longer wear long black braids and do a mock rain dance for touchdowns. The band no longer plays marches with elaborate feather headdresses. And nearly forgotten are the original lyrics to the fight song “Hail to the Redskins” as written by the movie star wife of the team’s first owner, laundry magnate George Preston Marshall.

“Scalp ’em, swamp ’um. We will take ’um big score,” has since been replaced with, “Beat ’em, swamp ’em, touchdown! — Let the points soar!”

The fight to retire the Redskins name dates back at least 40 years to a tense meeting at the team’s offices. That spring day in 1972, about a dozen American Indian representatives demanded of then-team President Edward Bennett Williams that the organization drop the nickname, which they described as a “derogatory racial epithet.”

 

Yes
%

No%

Results from an unscientific survey of Washington Post readers

How the team became the Redskins in the first place is either a story of honor or shame, depending on who is telling it. In one version, Marshall changed it from the Braves in 1937 to honor then-coach William “Lone Star” Dietz, a Sioux Indian. But a historian has since cast doubt on Dietz’s Indian roots, saying he stole the identity of a Native American man. Many people question whether Marshall, an anti-integrationist, would have honored him.

Marshall famously resisted integrating the team until 1961 under threat from the federal government, making the Redskins the last NFL team with an all-white roster. In his will, he stipulated that not a single dollar of the Redskins Foundation, to be created with his estate, go toward “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.”

Marshall was still majority owner at the time of the 1972 meeting. Despite his history, he agreed to have the cheerleaders stop wearing “Indian-style” wigs and to change the fight song.

But the team’s name would remain untouched.

“We would not carry a symbol offensive to any group,” Williams told The Washington Post later that year. “Had I been persuaded, we would have taken action accordingly.”

Conflicting views

Snyder declined a request for an interview, but his attorney Lanny Davis said Saturday that the name is “our history and legacy and tradition.”

“We at the Redskins respect everyone,” Davis said in a statement. “But like devoted fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks (from President Obama’s home town), we love our team and its name and, like those fans, we do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group.”

Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs recently told radio station WNEW, “I never ever thought of it as anything negative, but it’s all been a positive and I think that’s what I reflect on when I reflect on the song, the games and everybody being loyal Redskin people.”

Davis said Obama was probably unaware of a 2004 poll by the Annenberg Institute showing that nine out of 10 Native Americans were not offended by the team’s name. The study, the only major survey on the issue that has focused on Native Americans, has long been held up by defenders as a reason to leave the name alone.

“If the population that is supposed to be offended isn’t, then why should everyone else be upset about it?” said Lisa Delpy-Nerotti, professor of tourism and sport management at George Washington University.

Former FCC chairman Reed Hundt said polling numbers are not the final word.

“If you can’t look at somebody and use a certain name because it is an insult, then that is the moment of awareness that it is time for the name to be changed,” he said.

Since January, he has led an effort to get the FCC to convene a public meeting between broadcasters and Native American leaders on the subject. His hope is that broadcasters will voluntarily agree to stop using it, much the way individual journalists have.

“At the end of the day, if the owner can’t get the media to use the name, then it doesn’t have any brand value,” he said.

John Banzhaf, a George Washington University law professor who pressured the FCC in the 1960s to allot air time for anti-
tobacco ads, was writing letters to major Washington stations 14 years ago warning them they could lose their broadcasting licenses for airing the team’s name. Ultimately, he said, the commission could take a harder stance on the Redskins issue.

In the 1970s, the commission advised stations against playing music that gave a nod to drug use. “If the FCC can come out and say ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is wrong and a station could lose their license for playing it, I think it’s much more of a sin for a station to repeatedly use the word ‘Redskins,’ ” he said.

Hundt’s FCC strategy comes as a number of prominent sportswriters, most recently Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, have declared they will not use the word.

At The Washington Post, several columnists, including Mike Wise, have long denounced it. In September, the newspaper’s editorial board took a stance against it, arguing that the moniker “no matter its storied tradition or importance to many fans — is a racial slur of Native Americans so offensive that it should no longer be tolerated.”

Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor, said the paper’s policy is to use the names that institutions select for themselves.

The origins of the word remain in dispute, with some scholars saying Native Americans coined the term in the 18th century to describe themselves. Others link it to a time when a price was paid for the scalps of American Indians.

Whatever its origins, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary currently defines the word “redskin” as “usually offensive.”

Trademark lawsuit

Phil Gover was a 23-year-old recent graduate of the University of Virginia when he joined a lawsuit to revoke the Redskins’ federal trademark protection. A similar suit, brought by Suzan Harjo and seven other Native Americans in 1992, was thrown out on a technicality in 2009. Now with final arguments presented before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, a decision in the current case could come any day.

If the ruling falls in favor of Gover, now 31, and the four other plaintiffs, the team would not be forced to change its name but would lose its registered trademark status, which helps protect it from individuals looking to sell merchandise with the moniker on it. In the past, trademark office examiners have rejected four other applications that used the word Redskins, including “Redskins Pigskins” and “Redskins Fanatics,” on grounds that they were disparaging.

“There is no other culture that we get to wholesale market and misappropriate — intentionally misappropriate — in order to sell something,” said Gover, whose father, Kevin Gover, heads the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “But more than being wrong, it has bad effects. It translates to people’s perceptions of themselves.”

A member of the Paiute tribe who grew up on reservations in Nevada, Gover said as soon as he headed east to attend boarding school, he was reminded of the stereotypes reinforced by mainstream imagery. He was teased about tepees and headdresses. When he played football, he was asked why the paint on his face wasn’t more elaborate.

Shortly before he joined the lawsuit, Gover had a son and said he worried about the image that boy, whose mother is also Native American, would have of his culture. In Charlottesville, where they live, the Redskins logo is all around: in grocery store aisles, on passing cars, on the backs of second-graders the last Friday of every month — team day.

“How will he grow up to think about himself, to think about his identity and where his family came from?” Gover said.

As soon as the season opened, the Oneida Indian Nation in New York launched a national campaign targeting the Redskins, scheduling radio ads to follow the players from city to city. It said the goal was to educate the public about the “dehumanizing” nature of the word.

The Oneida Nation has become one of the most prominent voices in the campaign to change the name of the Washington football team within the past year. The push began in earnest after it helped a Cooperstown, N.Y., high school change its nickname from the Redskins to the Hawkeyes, spokesman Joel Barkin said. The tribe “wanted to use it as a teachable moment,” he said.

The tribe, which has about 1,000 members and is based in Central New York, has prospered in the casino and resort business and become a player in Washington on Native American issues, most notably as a major supporter of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian. The tribe has promised the museum $10 million over 10 years. It has organized a Monday conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown as “a chance for NFL officials, policymakers, and other concerned citizens to hear from federal legislators, community leaders and experts about the campaign.”

Disputed history

Not all Native Americans are offended by the name. Two polls focusing on the Indian community — conducted in 2002 and 2004 — showed the vast majority supported it.

For one family on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, it is even a point of pride.

Ida “One Star” Marshall (no relation to the team’s late owner) said her family has been mostly quiet about the issue over the years, even after team representatives visited them under the leadership of Jack Kent Cooke. But then they heard about the Oneida Nation’s push to change the name.

“They have no business saying that,” Marshall said recently. “He doesn’t belong to them,” she said of “Lone Star” Dietz.

Marshall, 60, said she and her siblings are relatives of Dietz and that he had hoped the name would encourage children who, like him, attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which aimed at assimilation.

“He wanted the kids at Carlisle school to not forget who they were, where they came from,” she said.

Linda Waggoner, a historian who has written papers debunking Dietz’s Indian roots, has spoken with Marshall and believes she and her siblings are connected to Dietz — but not by blood. She said her research shows the family is related to the Indian man whose identity Dietz stole, a charge to which he pleaded not guilty when the government tried him for using it to avoid military service.

Instead, the story about Marshall honoring Dietz is likely just one of many fabrications the team has put forward over time, she said. The most recent one came in May when Snyder’s public relations team touted an Indian chief who described the Redskins as a term of endearment — saying “When we were on the reservation, we’d call each other ‘Hey, what’s up, redskin?’ ” But Deadspin reporter Dave McKenna later turned up evidence that he was not a chief, and maybe not even Native American.

Still, it was believable enough that in June, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell used the alleged chief’s remarks to defend the team’s name in a letter he wrote to 10 members of Congress. The lawmakers have introduced a bipartisan bill that, like the lawsuit, would strip the team of its trademark protection. In his letter, Goodell called the name “a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”

Last month, however, Goodell took a much more tempered stance. During a radio interview, he said: “If one person’s offended, we have to listen.” But he stopped there. Ultimately, he said, the decision would be Snyder’s.

Through a spokesman, the NFL declined to comment about Obama’s statement.

A wave of silence

Unlike most debates, the one surrounding the team’s name does not consist of two sides shouting at each other. Some of the most powerful voices in the fight are speaking by saying nothing.

Liz Aquilino, a spokeswoman for Bob’s Discount Furniture, “the official furniture partner of the Washington Redskins,” said no one was available to comment. Pat Morrissey, a spokesman for General Motors, which owns GMC, the official vehicle of the NFL, said it wouldn’t be appropriate for the company to comment on any issue involving a single team.

Shareholders at FedEx, which owns the naming rights to the team’s Landover, Md., stadium, recently rejected a resolution by shareholder activists that called for exploring the cost of ending the company’s deal with the team.

Marketing experts say it is not in the interest of the NFL’s top sponsors — beer companies, pizza purveyors and cellphone carriers — to take a stance on the name because they need the league’s 181 million viewers during the regular season.

“As long as they are getting ratings, their attitude is, ‘I don’t care what they’re called,’ ” said Bob Leffler, founder of the Leffler Group in Baltimore, the nation’s largest sports entertainment advertising agency. Instead, advertisers are likely to wait the controversy out, as they have in the past, he said.

What fans say

In the end, the group that could wield the most influence is the one that buys the team’s gear and fills the stadium’s seats: the fans. The Redskins are one of the league’s most profitable franchises, earning more than $381 million in revenue last year, according to Forbes.

Polls show that even if support for the name has eroded over time, it has only slightly. An April Washington Post survey revealed that 28 percent of people in the region said the name should be changed. An Associated Press poll conducted a month later showed that nationally the number was even lower: 11 percent.

Three months before Snyder declared in a USA Today interview what has now become a mantra among his supporters — “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.” — the Smithsonian Institution sponsored a symposium dedicated to discussing racist stereotypes in American sports.

Toward the end of the day, a young black man named Andre Holland stepped up to the microphone. A lifelong Redskins fan, he was attending the symposium with his Anne Arundel Community College sports history class.

He hadn’t given a second thought to wearing gear with the name of his favorite team. It was on his cap and his earmuffs and the T-shirt tucked under his polo shirt. But as he waited to make a comment, he said, he felt a tap on his shoulder and an older Indian man asked him to please remove the hat because it was offensive.

“It woke me up,” Holland, now 21, recalled. “What if they called a team the Los Angeles Negroes?”

In a moment that several people would later describe as “beautiful,” he tossed his Redskins baseball cap on the floor, apologized to the crowd for wearing it and said the name should change. The room filled with applause.

But in the months that followed, Holland said he didn’t hear much about the name-change effort. There were no local protests to join, he said. No online effort to spread. Then a few weeks ago, he was getting ready to attend a game and found himself with a choice. His girlfriend had bought him a new RGIII Redskins jersey for his birthday. Holland said he paused and thought about it.

Then he put it on.

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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