REDSKINS OWNER Daniel M. Snyder may have changed his tone in the latest defense of his football team’s name, but his message stubbornly stays the same. His refusal to acknowledge the offense caused by the team’s name or to think seriously about changing it will prolong the debate, but it probably won’t change its outcome.
Mr. Snyder this week sent a letter to tens of thousands of fans and season-ticket holders detailing why he won’t change the name, even in the face of a growing controversy that saw the president of the United States weighing in. Likely counseled that his defiant vow to “never — you can use caps” — change the name wasn’t winning him much support, Mr. Snyder wrapped his new defense in the gauzy memories of a young boy growing up on the cheer and song of the Redskins and the need to preserve that 81-year-old tradition.
No one doubts the pull of tradition or the sincerity of fans who want to keep the name. Tradition, though, can’t be a bulwark for the indefensible. The Redskins organization showed as much in the 1960s when it changed the team fight song from “fight for old Dixie to “fight for old D.C.” That vestige of the racism of original owner George Preston Marshall — like the derogatory slur that is the team’s name — needed to be changed because it offended people. How many people didn’t really matter. Nor did it matter that the fans who sang those old lyrics meant no offense. The question remains: Would Mr. Snyder feel comfortable calling an Indian “redskin?” A report released this week by the National Congress of American Indians highlighted the harmful impact, particularly on youth, of mascots that focus on negative stereotypes of the past.
The National Football League unexpectedly agreed to meet with representatives of the Oneida Indian Nation, which has taken up a fight started in the early 1960s and is giving it new prominence. NFL officials are right to realize that the league’s interests — from trademark protections for the Redskins brand to coverage by sports writers who refuse to use a name they see as offensive — are involved. That should add to the pressure on Mr. Snyder who, whether he realizes it or not, will define his legacy by which side of history he wants to be on.