In the most detailed defense to date of the Redskins name, team owner Daniel Snyder said in a letter to fans that while he respects “the opinions of those who are offended by the team name . . . we cannot ignore our 81-year history.”
Tens of thousands of fans and season ticket holders began receiving e-mails and letters from Snyder on Wednesday, four days after President Obama added his voice to the decades-long debate over the team name. Obama said if he were the owner, “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.”
In the letter, the often-combative Snyder took a softer, more personal approach than he has in the past. In May, he vowed to USA Today that he would never change the name, “never . . . you can use all caps.”
This week, Snyder recalled his first Redskins game at RFK Stadium when he was 6. “I remember how quiet it was when the Redskins had the ball, and then how deafening it was when we scored,” he wrote. “The ground beneath me seemed to move and shake, and I reached up to grab my father’s hand. The smile on his face as he sang the song . . . he’s been gone for 10 years now, but that smile, and his pride, are still with me every day.
“That tradition — the song, the cheer — it mattered so much to me as a child, and I know it matters to every other Redskins fan in the D.C. area and across the nation.”
The letter comes amid increasing controversy over the name, which some Native Americans and sports columnists have condemned as a racial slur. On Monday, NFL officials agreed to meet with the Oneida Indian Nation, which has been running radio ads in every city the team plays in this season, calling on Snyder to drop the name.
In his letter, Snyder rejected any negative characterization of the name. He cited a nine-year-old Annenberg Public Policy Center poll of 800 Native Americans across 48 states that showed nine out of 10 did not find the name offensive. And he pointed to an April Associated Press-GFK poll that found 79 percent of those surveyed said the team should keep its name. He also quoted leaders of American Indian tribes in Virginia who have publicly expressed support for the name in news stories.
“I’ve listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name,” he wrote. “But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too.”
His words didn’t mollify critics of the name.
“I remember my first Washington football team game too. It was an all-white team and the owner was an avowed racist,” former Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt said, referring to the late George Preston Marshall, who was the last NFL owner to integrate his team, and came up with the Redskins name.
Hundt is leading an effort to get the FCC to convene a public meeting between broadcasters and Native American leaders in hopes of persuading broadcasters to stop using the name. More than two dozen people, including five former FCC officials and several Native American activists, signed a letter sent Wednesday to acting FCC chairman Mignon Clyburn requesting the meeting.
Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Indian Nation, suggested Snyder present his defense in person at the New York-based tribe’s meeting with NFL officials. “Mr. Snyder can personally explain to [Oneida families] why he believes they deserve to be called ‘redskins,’ ” Halbritter said in a statement. “He can then hear directly from them why that term is so painful.”
But Snyder’s intended audience — Redskins fans — largely applauded the team’s shift to a less confrontational, more empathetic tone.
“I think it’s the right approach, finally,” said Michael George, a 37-year old fan from Virginia who recently started a “Save the Redskins” group on Facebook, which now has more than 1,100 members. He had e-mailed the team’s PR staff, complaining about what he saw as an inadequate and inarticulate response to the protests.
“To be dismissive I don’t think is the right approach,” George said. “You want to listen to peoples’ concerns, and I would like to see a partnership between the Redskins and some of the tribes.”
Some fans said the letter shifted their thinking on the matter. Andre Mitchell, a 28-year old Washingtonian who writes and podcasts about the team for the HTTR 24-7 site, said he was on the fence before reading Snyder’s letter, mostly feeling fatigue over the whole issue. He said Wednesday that he still doesn’t have strong feelings about the debate, but he better understands Snyder’s position.“I just thought it was well thought-out — even if you disagree, you have to appreciate that he put out where he stands on the situation, and put it in a better light than he has in the past,” Mitchell said.
Zac Foster, 28, a lifelong fan who lives in Denver, said he had long thought of Snyder as “super polarizing,” but this time “he nailed it.”
“I loved the letter. I thought it was great. Because it hurts, it hurts to be called a racist it hurts to be called a bigot,” Foster said. “At my core I’m a bleeding heart liberal, but this franchise means a lot to me. All those feelings, all those emotions, ‘Hail to the Redskins,’ the whole bit. He’s exactly right, it’s a part of who we are. He definitely captured the way I feel.”