After failing for months to persuade Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to meet with Native Americans opposed to the team’s name, a prominent civil rights organization that works closely with the National Football League is calling for the moniker to change.
Leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance — an influential nonprofit group that was instrumental in forcing the league to revise its minority-hiring practices — said they tried to discuss the issue with Snyder at an intense August meeting. Instead, they said, they were shouted down by the executive director of the foundation he created to help Native Americans.
The alliance, which is headed by former players, also told The Washington Post that, at a pair of annual gatherings, they voiced concerns about the moniker to NFL leadership — including once to Commissioner Roger Goodell — but were told it was a matter only the team could address.
At a dead end, alliance leaders have taken their opposition public on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for maximum impact. The group has a history of spurring substantial change in the NFL, making the proclamation among the most significant victories for opponents of the name.
The group’s leaders explained the decision in a letter to their representatives, made up of minority coaches and front-office staff members on teams throughout the league.
“As the NFL continues to move in the direction of respect and dignity, one of its teams carrying this name cuts glaringly against the grain,” read a letter co-signed by the group’s chairman, John Wooten, a Redskins lineman in the late 1960s. “It hurts the League and it hurts us all.”
The letter was also signed by Fritz Pollard Executive Director Harry Carson, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the New York Giants.
Tony Wyllie, a Redskins spokesman, said the team is dismayed by the letter and the position the alliance has taken. “We’ve had many conversations with the FPA about the name issue and are disappointed in their decision. We believe that they ignored the outstanding support we have received from Native Americans across this country for the Washington Redskins and the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation during their decision making process,” Wyllie said in a statement.
The alliance’s leaders are the latest in a long line of public figures who have come out against the name, including President Obama, 50 U.S. senators, and a parade of sports broadcasters and columnists. But most of the other opponents are league outsiders.
The alliance was formed in 2003, the same year that the NFL, under threat of litigation by lawyers Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran, established what came to be called the Rooney Rule. The rule requires each NFL team with a head-coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. The requirement was extended later to vacancies for general manager and equivalent jobs.
The organization continues to serve as a watchdog of NFL teams’ hiring practices. Earlier this month, it filed a complaint with the league about the manner in which the Redskins conducted its search for a general manager.
The alliance began to consider the name debate in summer 2013 as part of a broader look at the league’s culture. One of its attorneys, N. Jeremi Duru, an American University law professor, was asked to evaluate the controversy.
Duru, author of “Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL,” reviewed studies on the issue as well as a suit filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in the 1990s that claimed the name and logo were disparaging to Native Americans. He also looked up dictionary definitions that consistently defined the term as a racial slur.
“There seemed to be an argument on the [team] side that it wasn’t reasonable to be offended by the use of the word,” Duru said. “My research found that it was quite reasonable to be offended by its use.”
In November 2013, after a pair of racially charged incidents involving NFL players, the organization called for the league to curb the use of the N-word and other slurs during games. The NFL later agreed to use existing unsportsmanlike-conduct rules to ban such slurs. That stand made the group think more deeply about whether the term “Redskins” should have a place in the NFL.
As it does every year, the alliance met with league officials that December to discuss the list of minority personnel qualified for job openings. There, the group also addressed the N-word — and the name controversy.
“You can’t move forward as a league talking about respect and dignity if you have one club going the opposite direction,” said Mehri, one of the alliance’s lawyers. “I made the point that this is bad for the league, and Jeremi made the point that Native Americans have a legitimate argument.”
NFL leadership took note, he said, but offered no solution.
In July, the organization met with activists, including National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jacqueline Pata and Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter, who has led (and funded) much of the campaign to change the name.
The Native American leaders explained the impact the name has had on their people, and especially their youth.
“It was so powerful,” Mehri said. “I kept thinking, hearing this is just like hearing John Wooten talk about the N-word. It’s the same pain.”
Mehri and his colleagues left the meeting determined to spark a discussion between activists and the team, convinced that the alliance’s stature in NFL circles would earn them Snyder’s consideration.
The next month, they traveled to the team’s training camp in Richmond and met with Snyder; the team’s president, Bruce Allen; and, among others, the head of the Redskins Original Americans Foundation, Gary L. Edwards.
After Wooten told the team they had come as friends, Mehri said he started his pitch — then the meeting rapidly deteriorated.
“Every time we tried to speak, this guy Gary Edwards exploded,” said Mehri, who has also worked an NFL consultant. “It was really hostile. And it was jarring, because it was so out of place.”
When Carson brought up the issue, Edwards fired back, asking what Carson, who is African American, would want to be called.
“I want to be called a man,” Carson recalled saying.
Edwards, a Cherokee and retired deputy assistant director of the Secret Service, was so disruptive that Fritz Pollard officials said they never had the chance to ask Snyder if he would meet with activists.
“At some point, we just gave up talking,” Mehri said. “It was clear they were not in a frame of mind to even hear the words we were saying.”
Edwards could not be reached for comment Sunday night through a team spokesman.
Despite the confrontation, Carson said he left the discussion with an enhanced respect for Snyder, who detailed the work he had done on reservations.
The group continued contacting the team, but months passed without a definitive response. Then, at the Redskins’ game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Dec. 14, Carson approached Allen on the sideline.
Allen, he said, told him that the name controversy was no longer relevant, as it had become little more than a tool lawmakers used for political gain. Through a spokesman, Allen declined to comment on the exchange.
“I got the sense that he felt like it was over, and it was not anything to discuss any further,” Carson said.
Weeks later, at their annual meeting with NFL leaders, members of the group told Goodell and others that they had exhausted their options and would soon publicly express opposition to the name.
The response, they said, was: You have to do what you have to do.
Wooten, who said he maintains a close relationship with Redskins executives, is disappointed the team refused his offer to mediate a face-to-face meeting with activists.
“We have to take a stand. That name has to be changed. We can’t just leave it up to [the team]. We think it’s disrespectful. We think it’s, by definition, demeaning,” Wooten said. “I truly believe all sides, including the Native American groups who don’t feel the name needs to be changed, they all need to be there, and they should all sit and discuss this. That hasn’t happened. I truly believe that has to happen.”