It was the first time Obama, a big sports fan who roots for teams from his native Chicago, had been asked his opinion publicly on the controversy surrounding the name of Washington’s professional football franchise.
Team owner Daniel Snyder has said he will not change the name of the team, which has been called the Redskins since George Preston Marshall owned the franchise in Boston in 1933. Marshall moved the team to Washington in 1937, and it has since become one of the National Football League’s most profitable franchises.
“We at the Redskins respect everyone,” Lanny J. Davis, the attorney for the Redskins, said in a statement in response to Obama’s comments. “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. The name ‘Washington Redskins’ is 81 years old — it’s our history and legacy and tradition. We Redskins fans sing ‘Hail to the Redskins’ every Sunday as a word of honor, not disparagement.”
NFL owners are scheduled to meet in Washington on Monday, and the Oneida Indian Nation is planning a protest. NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell said last month that it is Snyder’s decision, but he said that if one person is offended, “we have to listen.”
The Oneida Indian Nation welcomed Obama’s comments Saturday, saying in a statement that “President Obama’s comments today are historic.”
“The use of such a offensive term has negative consequences for the Native American community when it comes to issues of self-identity and imagery,” Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter said in the statement. “We will continue to push our cause because at the end of the day this is about doing right by our children who are especially impressionable.”
Obama emphasized that the team did not intend to offend and he acknowledged that changing the name would be hard because “people get pretty attached to team names, mascots.
“I don’t want to detract from the wonderful Redskins fans that are here,” the president said. “They love their team, and rightly so — even though they’ve been having a pretty tough time this year. But I think — all these mascots and team names related to Native Americans, Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it. And I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”
A growing number of news organizations, including Sports Illustrated’s NFL writer Peter King, Slate magazine and the Washington City Paper, have decided to stop using the name in stories. Some former players, including Hall of Fame members Art Monk and Darrell Green, have suggested that they might support changing the name, although Green later clarified that he supports the name.
Others, including Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, have said it would be wrong to erase the name of the storied franchise, which won three Super Bowls under Gibbs.
“I grew up as a young kid running around the hills of North Carolina, the only football team we could get was the Redskins,” Gibbs told Cameron Thompson of WNEW radio. “So from that point on, everything I’ve known or been a part of has been Redskins. 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.”
Synder and other supporters, including a majority of Washington area fans, have said the name is not meant to offend but to honor Native Americans. The team has sought to highlight high school and collegiate teams that use similar names, though many have dropped variations of names based on Native Americans over the years.
According to a Washington Post poll in June, 61 percent of Washingtonians support the name, and 80 percent of Redskins fans said the team should not change it.
An Annenberg Public Policy Center poll of Native Americans conducted in 2004 found that a majority were not bothered by the team’s name.
As are most things in Washington, Obama’s comments on the Redskins were quickly met with partisan skepticism.
“President Obama, so what *should* we call the Washington professional football club?” tweeted Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Obama told the Associated Press that he has no stake in the name since he’s not an owner of a team.
“Maybe after I leave the presidency,” he said with a chuckle. “I think it would be a lot of fun. . . . I’d probably look at a basketball team before I looked at a football team. I know more about basketball than I do about football.”