Mike Wise
Mike Wise

Regarding Washington Redskins name change, ‘never’ may be sooner than anyone thought

Video: President Barack Obama said that if he were owner of the Washington Redskins, he'd think about changing the team's name.

As they unveiled the banner for ChangeTheMascot.org on the second floor of the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, amid a standing-room-only crowd of cameras, media and the concerned, everything came into focus Monday.

Before an Oneida Nation leader even called the team name a racial slur for the first time from the podium, before a Manhattan psychologist logically connected the dots — between the burnt siena-pigmented face on a helmet with the line drawn through it in the background to the utter hopelessness on reservations — you just knew:


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Even if he remains in Washington for his entire NFL career, Robert Griffin III is not going to retire an R-word.

It’s not a matter of “if” anymore, but rather “when.”

The debate over whether a people are denigrated or honored by the name of the Washington NFL team, like the absurd debate over whether the name is a unifying force, is over.

How many of the more than 5 million American Indians in this country actually want the name gone — how many need to be offended — is approaching irrelevant.

We’re quickly moving past all that.

The question is how long before Roger Goodell or any of the NFL commissioner’s brightest lawyers deem that a prolonged public assault against the name becomes financially hazardous to the league’s future. Just when is the tipping point?

The answer, we found out Monday, is now.

League officials have reached out to the Oneida Nation, which sponsored Monday’s symposium and suddenly has been passed the name-change baton from Suzan Shown Harjo after more than two decades.

The NFL, through Adolphus Birch, its senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, has asked that a meeting originally scheduled for Nov. 22 be moved up — and, if needed, to the Oneida reservation in Verona, N.Y.

Think about that: The NFL, which has spent tens of thousands of dollars defending the team from American Indian plantiffs seeking to strip its trademark in court for the better part of two decades, has offered to go to the res to talk.

Tiring of the sustained momentum the issue has gained since the beginning of the year, including a national radio ad campaign denouncing the team’s name in each city it plays — tired of the widespread publicity, which runs the gamut from the Indian Country Today media network to NBC’s “Meet the Press” — Goodell has sent an emissary to act on his behalf.

The commissioner and others also may be tired of team owner Daniel Snyder’s cold brazenness toward the offended. They simply can’t take his tone-deafness on the issue anymore; it’s bad business.

If the NFL is as boxed in as it appears and Birch and others from the league office aren’t going on a patronizing P.R. mission, this is the first step in the matter being taken out of Snyder’s hands — the first clear indication that the name is eventually going down.

I thought this past winter it might happen within 10 years. My guess now is five years or less, maybe three — and that’s just to accommodate the time it will take to reach a settlement with the team, find a new name and license, market and promote it.

If the matter escalates further and a national boycott of team and league sponsors is needed, oh well.

Either way, after years of waiting for the caravan of angry protesters to pass, it’s over. As Ray Halbritter, the impassioned, thoughtful front man for the Oneida Nation said Monday, “This is not going away this time.”

“We want change, change not only in more than a symbolic way but change in the lives of the American Indian people — particularly our children,” Halbritter said.

“I think a potential meeting can only lead to a conversation that will be beneficial,” he added. Asked if Snyder would be a part of the group, Halbritter replied: “I don’t know. If he is, we welcome his participation. But right now, it’s only the NFL that is responding to us positively.”

The leader of the free world saying over the weekend that he would think seriously about changing the name was clearly historic news, the first time a sitting U.S. president had taken a stand on the issue. It also revealed another significant development: Snyder has hired a crisis management specialist — not just any chaos control guy but Lanny Davis, who has represented Trent Lott, Martha Stewart, Penn State in the wake of a child sexual-abuse scandal and been rebuked by human rights groups for trying to portray ruthless foreign war-mongers as peaceful people.

Really, for all the work Harjo did to eradicate the name for parts of three decades, for everything Halbritter and others do now, the person who did the most to amplify the message of the ChangeTheMascot.org crowd is Snyder himself.

When USA Today’s Erik Brady asked about the issue in May, the owner’s hubris got the best of him: “We’ll never change the name,” Snyder said. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

That was it. That was enough to mobilize many of the apathetic and ambivalent to join the advocates and the hard-core activists. When a billionaire takes a position as a bully instead of at least acknowledging the people who are offended, then he starts to lose what middle ground remained.

Now he’s hired Davis to speak for Burgundy and Gold Nation, whose most ardent, pro-name faction still has no clue there is a larger group of people now speaking on behalf of how wrong the team’s name is.

It’s not the Oneida Nation, the Cherokee Nation or any one of 450-plus federally recognized sovereign peoples. It’s called the world’s tribe, and it is bigger and infinitely more powerful than an 80-year-old fan base and its idea of “tradition.”

Brace yourselves for change. Five years tops, it’s gone. And it’s about time.

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

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