Mike Wise
Mike Wise

By defending Redskins name, NFL’s Roger Goodell is on wrong side of history

Video: Kedric Golston talks about the pride he feels playing for the Redskins, even though there are protests from some Native American groups to change the name.

I went to SiriusXM this week for Joe Madison’s radio show to be part of a panel on the NFL Name That Dare Not Be Named.

Because no one from the team or league ever shows up at these events to tell Native American people how they’re being “honored,” what usually happens is about 20 to 30 like-minded people get together and ground and pound Daniel Snyder into pulp.


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But this week there was a watershed moment: The intransigent team owner was spared the angriest rhetoric. Oh, Dan took a couple jabs, but the majority of the ire was directed at the guy in charge of the most rich and powerful sports league in North America.

“If this name has to be changed for him, Roger Goodell is going to go down next to George Preston Marshall in history,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said.

Just like that: the NFL commissioner equated to an avowed segregationist, the original owner of a franchise Marshall loved to call “the South’s team.”

The stunner last Tuesday wasn’t that an NFL body granted a Native American group an audience over the issue of the Washington football team’s name for the first time in decades. No, the stunner was that Snyder was let off the hook, his “never” stance backed up by Gen. Goodell and his wrong-side-of-history cavalry.

The man who months ago said, “If one person is offended, we have to listen,” wouldn’t even deign to meet face to face with actual offended tribal members who want the name changed.

Instead, he met with Snyder to affirm their solidarity to profit off a slur and the next day sent his lieutenants to — get this — defend the name.

Again, let’s be clear: Roger Goodell is on the wrong side.

When David Stern was asked earlier this year whether he would tolerate a team featuring the racial makeup of a people in his league, the NBA commissioner shook his head, no.

“Could you imagine any owner getting approval to use that name for his expansion team today?” Stern told me after a program highlighting his career at the National Museum of the American Indian. “Of course not.”

The days of making Snyder a cretin on this issue are done in this space. He is no longer the target; he’s just a figurehead with financial and emotional backing from the highest-ranking superior in his army.

From foolish money in free agency to callous disregard for people who could no longer afford to pay for their ticket plans, we always knew Dan couldn’t help himself. That’s just who he was.

Snyder needed a strong, progressive leader to silence him, not parrot him on this issue, a person looking out for the long-term economic interests of the NFL and his own legacy.

Instead, he got another kid who wants Robert Griffin III’s autograph.

Of all the people plucked to inherit Paul Tagliabue’s job it had to be a lawyer who grew up on Sonny and Sam, on Gibbs, Riggo and the Hogs.

“I always looked at it as something of an honor,” Goodell said in London two weeks ago. “I walked around our house singing ‘Hail to the [team’s name]’ as a kid, so it’s something I always looked at as a positive thing.”

And I had a burgundy-and-gold rain poncho with the logo in the middle of my chest as a 6-year-old. Though I had no affinity for the team growing up in Northern California, I ordered it out of the Montgomery Ward catalog because I told my grandmother I wanted to be an Indian.

When I became an adult, I met scores of people who told me their culture and spiritual practices have been misappropriated by others for profit. These people never ask for royalties; they only ask that we stop buying our kids ponchos with red-pigmented faces on them so their kids don’t have to look at them. They ask that we respect their intellect, creativity and new-millennium future as much as we respect their bravery during the saddest moments of their existence some 150 years ago.

Goodell’s emissaries didn’t have to tell them they were ready to change the name. But they also didn’t have to insult a race of people who have waited more than 40 years for a meeting to hear a linguistics lecture, held in an office of the same law firm who has racked up hundreds of billable hours the past two decades at the NFL’s expense for telling Suzan Shown Harjo and other plaintiffs in U.S. Patent and Trademark Court to essentially get over it and go back to the res.

Too often, I get the old, “Can you stop trying to make me feel guilty about my football team?” Mostly, they’re right. I have no right to tell you what you should be offended by, just as you have no right to tell me what someone should be honored by.

But for a moment let’s talk logic, not emotion. Take the David Stern litmus test: If you had an expansion team in any sport, do you think that name would be used for a team today?


Now ask yourself what the defenders of the name are really defending — and weigh it against the cost of keeping it. When you weigh those two — the longstanding nickname of a sports franchise vs. offense to the heritage of a group of people — any sense of basic human decency would make someone defer to American Indians who are hurt.

Viewed in that context, who’s really blowing this out of proportion?

To dig in, to take the stance of, “Why should the team be forced to change?” is not about an attachment to a name. It’s about being indignant that someone else is forcing an agenda on you.

Goodell and Snyder are not used to having other people make decisions for them. Their combined stance — “We have every right to have a name in our league regardless of how it makes people feel” — is patently indefensible.

There is no way this name is making anyone feel as good as it’s making some feel bad.

That’s not a left-right, red state-blue state issue. That’s a people issue.

And if Goodell is really short-sighted enough to go to the mat on this for Snyder, that stance will eclipse anything good and right he has done.

This is Snyder’s team, but this is Goodell’s league. The power of the commissioner trumps everything. From now on, until the day the name is changed, he becomes the mark.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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