December 27, 2013

As the Washington football team’s season draws to a close today, it is safe to say that the year has been entirely forgettable when judged only by the team’s win-loss record. However, when judged by what rose up to challenge that team’s continued promotion of a racial slur, the year will be remembered as a pivotal moment and a triumph.

For decades, courageous civil rights activists have organized to pressure Washington’s owners to stop using the R-word as part of the team’s name. The merits of their argument are obvious. The word is a slur that was screamed at Native Americans as they were forced from their lands at gunpoint. It is a word that, according to public-health experts, continues to have deleterious cultural, psychological and social effects on Native American communities. So while famous segregationist George Preston Marshall saw nothing wrong with using the R-word when he owned the team, civil rights leaders such as Suzan Shown Harjo have been rightly saying that it is unacceptable for a professional sports league to continue promoting such a derogatory epithet.

As self-evident as that should be in the 21st century, the Washington team has long counted on the political, media and sports worlds to ignore the name-change campaign for fear of incurring the wrath of the NFL and the current owner, Dan Snyder. But this year, the league’s fear-enforced stonewall was shattered as a diverse coalition of civil rights groups, public-health organizations, religious leaders and sports icons was joined by governors, the D.C. Council, Republican and Democratic members of Congress and even the president of the United States in saying that now is the time for a change.

Taken together, this coalition’s collective message has been clear: 2013 is the year the campaign against the NFL’s use of this racial slur coalesced into a permanent movement. It is not going away until the team either stops using the epithet or, if it won’t do the right thing, the league steps in to take corrective measures.

So far, the team’s and league’s reactions to this new reality have been predictable, and predictably disappointing, as they continue to urge the public to ignore the growing outcry against the name and hope that the issue will fade away.

In response to the radio advertisements the Oneida Indian Nation has aired in support of this cause, I have been asked why changing a football team’s word is such an important cause. My answer is simple. The NFL is a $9-billion-a-year business and among the most powerful cultural forces in America. For many people, their most direct contact with the very idea of Native American culture is the Washington team’s name. On billboards, on T-shirts, on hats and on countless TV screens every week, millions of people are told that we are a mascot.

Because such a message comes with such terrible consequences for Native Americans, changing the name is not some minor issue. It is critical. Indeed, precisely because it is so critical, this campaign is not going away, no matter how much the NFL or Snyder wants it to. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The close of the 2013 NFL regular season is merely the end of the beginning of an effort that will continue to grow in the offseason and, if the name remains unchanged, return next season even stronger.

The writer is Oneida Indian Nation representative and leader of the Change the Mascot campaign.