The world’s most powerful man had just uttered five words that, in an instant, fundamentally altered the debate.
“I’d think about changing it,” President Obama said in early October 2013, explaining what he would do about the Washington Redskins’ controversial name if he owned the team. Suddenly, a decades-long effort by Native American activists to force the franchise to retire its moniker reignited, commanding national attention for months to come.
The movement suffered a blow Thursday when a new Washington Post poll showed that 9 in 10 Native Americans do not find the team’s name offensive.
But while widespread support from the country’s 5.4 million Indians might have helped the cause, they were never the campaign’s key target. Only one person could change a name that dictionaries define as a slur: team owner Daniel Snyder, who was deeply attached to it.
“We’ll never change the name,” he told USA Today in May 2013. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
But new interviews with people close to the team reveal the immense pressure that Snyder faced in the wake of the president’s remarks — and how he and his staff managed to navigate their way through it.
“It was a game-changer,” a person close to Snyder said. “Obama made it into an issue of race and ethnicity.” And as the country’s first African American commander in chief, his views carried extra significance.
Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter, an influential figure and financier in the fight against Snyder, called the moment “historic.”
Two days later, news broke that league officials had agreed to meet with activists. A week after that, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas declared to more than 20 million people watching “Sunday Night Football” that the name was a slur. In the months that followed, D.C. lawmakers denounced the word as “racist and derogatory,” and 50 U.S. senators called on the National Football League to act.
“The volume,” one team official said, “was overwhelming.”
Snyder’s fellow owners continued to back him, but his inner circle knew their support would evaporate if one critical bloc wavered: sponsors. The league — which brought in more than $13 billion last year — shares the vast majority of its revenue with the teams. What impacts one franchise’s finances can also affect every other team.
“We all waited for the biggest hit of all, which was the advertisers,” said the person close to Snyder, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. “Waiting for it to happen, this sinking feeling that it was inevitable to happen after Obama weighed in. If that had ever happened, it would have changed everything. The owners would have turned against Dan.”
That never did happen, and, of course, the name remained the same.
Days before Obama took his stand, the Oneida issued a news release announcing a bold move: Tribal leaders planned to confront the owners of the NFL’s 32 teams.
“A hotel in our nation’s capital will next week be the site for both the NFL’s Fall League Meeting and a high-level symposium on why supporters of Change the Mascot believe Washington’s NFL team should end its use of a racial slur as its mascot.”
The only problem: League officials held their event a mile away from the activists’ gathering at a different Ritz-Carlton.
Those pushing the movement have never been short on conviction, but they have always struggled to match the resources, manpower and organization of their powerful opponent. And, at least in the beginning, they did not have a formal strategy.
“Let’s just try to get the debate started, and let’s see where this goes,” Oneida spokesman Joel Barkin said of activists’ thinking in those early days. “This was never going to be an overnight issue.”
In fact, the issue dates to at least 1972, when 11 activists met with Edward Bennett Williams, the team’s president at the time, to ask that the name be changed.
Williams told them, according to the Washington Daily News, that the moniker was meant to honor Indians, not offend them — an assertion made repeatedly over the past 44 years.
In January 1992, when the Buffalo Bills played Washington in the Super Bowl, an estimated 3,000 demonstrators turned out to denounce the name at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Using language later echoed by Snyder, then-owner Jack Kent Cooke vowed to never change it.
Even so, the controversy never achieved the level of attention that it has over the past three years.
Heated arguments between activists and fans began popping up on social media. A group of Native Americans led by Amanda Blackhorse won the first two rounds in an ongoing fight over the team’s federal trademark protections. Dictionary.com highlighted “redskin” as one of 11 words that trended in 2014.
Supported by a lucrative New York casino operation, Halbritter’s tribe funded radio ads in cities where the Redskins were playing away games, and the Oneida media arm, Indian Country Today, published a barrage of critical stories. Beyond the dozens of Indian groups that voiced support, Halbritter and other activists also developed significant non-native allies, including the United Church of Christ and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a prominent civil rights organization that works closely with the NFL.
An enormous amount of free media coverage accompanied the push, turning Snyder into a favorite target of satirists. “South Park,” “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and the New Yorker magazine all took aim at him.
Opponents of the name did not initially think Snyder would be their adversary.
Soon after he bought the team in 1999, Suzan Harjo and other activists wrote him a letter, assuming he would be sympathetic to their cause because he was young and Jewish.
Snyder never wrote back. The deep connection he had with the team — and its name — dated to the very first game he attended at age 6 with his father.
The owner explained his devotion in a letter he sent to fans the week after Obama’s interview.
“After 81 years, the team name ‘Redskins’ ” he wrote, “continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.”
Both team officials and their opponents agree on at least one thing: Snyder’s all-caps comment — “NEVER” — set a course for what has happened since. That, along with his refusal to meet with Native American advocates, gave them license, they said, to frame him as the enemy.
“This really became a ‘which side are you on’ issue, which it had never been,” Barkin said. “We always thought if we could get it to that, ultimately we would win.”
The goal, he explained, was to isolate Snyder and his team.
The person close to the owner described that approach as shortsighted. Lines, he said, hardened for both sides, but only one of those two sides wanted something from the other.
“The problem with the way the issue unfolded is it became personalized around Dan,” he said. “If you paint someone in a corner, and you try to humiliate them, you’ll never win.”
Kelly O’Keefe, who teaches brand management at Virginia Commonwealth University and has followed the name-change movement closely, agreed that Snyder needed a way to save face for the activists to prevail. Demonizing him, O’Keefe said, was “not good policy.”
Advocates also may have missed an opportunity to take the decision out of Snyder’s hands.
“The owners backed up Dan because they thought it was ridiculous,” the person said. “Unless the national advertisers, the networks, the money that comes in from the Super Bowl — if any of that was threatened — it’s over.”
Both the Oneida and the National Congress of American Indians asked FedEx, which bought the naming rights to the team’s stadium in Landover, Md., to sever ties with the Redskins, and at least one tribe announced a boycott of the company. But the campaign’s focus always remained on the team.
That is at least in part, Barkin said, because Native Americans make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population. Even if they had been unified — which The Post poll shows they were not — their efforts could have made only so much of an impact.
For the activists to win, he said, it is essential that people automatically associate the team’s name with racism.
But the person close to Snyder maintains that activists missed their window to erode the team’s financial support.
“The mistake the Oneidas made and everyone else made,” he said, “was they believed in the sanctimony of the movement.”
Even their successful appeal to elected leaders might have worked against them in some ways, said O’Keefe, who taught a class at VCU in which his students developed ideas on how to re-brand the team.
“Nobody,” he said, “wants something taken away from them because Congress decided to take it away from them.”
It also created a partisan divide that might not have otherwise existed. Conservative commentators with no obvious stake in the issue, including Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, suddenly began castigating name-change advocates.
“Obama made it into a cause of political liberal correctness,” said the person close to Snyder. “Why do you think every Democrat in Congress signed on?”
Still, name-change advocates throttled the team in the public-relations battle for much of 2013 and 2014. The Redskins were often slow to counter criticism, and when they did, the responses tended to sound defensive.
The pressure surrounding the issue was so intense that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was forced to address it publicly. In conversations with the team, he never demanded a new name, the person close to Snyder said, but he did tell the Redskins they had to “do something” to address the controversy.
An early tactic was to repeatedly highlight a 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll that indicated just 1 in 10 Native Americans were offended by the name.
About the same time, Snyder’s staff also persuaded him to go on a “listening tour” of Indian Country. According to those who know him well, the little-publicized trips made an impression on Snyder.
“He became quite a different person because he understood that what’s really going on is these are miserably treated people in America,” the person close to him said. “He became a real convert. But he wasn’t hearing Native Americans saying, ‘We have to change the name.’ He was hearing, ‘My son is an alcoholic, and my best friend’s son just committed suicide.’ ”
In March 2014, Snyder announced the launch of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, an organization that activists allege is a cheap effort to buy favor from Indian communities in desperate need of help.
But the pressure surrounding the name failed to recede, and Redskins executives worried that the damage to their brand and reputation would become irreparable.
That nervousness led the team to hire Burson-Marsteller, a high-powered public-relations firm that helped the franchise better manage communication with the media.
“That’s a pretty scary thing to be at risk,” said the Redskins official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Soon, RedskinsFacts.com was launched to counter criticism, and the team began promoting the work Snyder’s foundation was doing on reservations, eventually announcing that it had given $3.7 million in aid to more than 20 tribes.
The Redskins had finally gone on the offensive.
Twelve hundred miles from the nation’s capital, in a Minnesota town on Lake Superior, the name-change dispute never felt relevant to Charles Moore.
A 73-year-old Oneida of Wisconsin, he is among the 90 percent of Native Americans who told Post pollsters that the moniker did not offend them.
More than half of the 504 self-identified Native Americans surveyed had heard either nothing or “not too much” about the debate, indicating that activists had not spread their message to a large portion of Indian Country.
Moore, an avid reader, has long been aware of the movement, but not because anyone tried to persuade him to join it. He said it has never been mentioned in the quarterly newsletter he gets from his tribe or on a weekly TV show about Native American news in his community.
More widespread outreach may not have mattered, though. Among those who had heard a “great deal” about the controversy, 9 in 10 said they were not offended, the poll found.
“There are just other issues that are so important — so much more important — than what a professional football team in Washington, D.C., is called,” said Moore, a retired physician. “I can understand why people are offended by it — I really can — but it’s not really an issue that counts, in my mind anyway.”
Even in Washington, discussion of the issue has waned, with most media coverage focused only on the ongoing legal showdown over the team’s trademark registrations. Activists held a protest at FedEx Field in 2014 but did not repeat the effort a year later. The campaign’s once-blistering momentum has slowed.
Then, this past week, The Post poll — conducted to see whether the much-cited 12-year-old Annenberg results had changed — delivered a setback to activists by finding there had been no shift in opinion among ordinary Indians.
Some of the advocates attacked the survey, insisting that the results were invalid. Others did not dispute the poll’s validity but maintained it changed nothing.
“The act of polling a human rights issue is absurd,” said Blackhorse, 34, who lives on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. “It trivializes the reports and experiences of those native people who’ve been hurt and damaged by native stereotypes and by the Washington team name.”
Tara Houska, a tribal attorney who lives in the District and helped organize the FedEx demonstration, pointed to several psychological studies that have documented the negative effects of Native American mascots and sports imagery on Indian youth.
“A poll is not going to tell me that this doesn’t harm the self-esteem of native children,” said Houska, a member of the Couchiching First Nation.
The leader of the Oneida was also defiant.
In a statement, Halbritter highlighted the movement’s success in persuading high schools around the country to drop native names and mascots and said, “The notion that a single newspaper poll will reverse that progress we’ve made is absurd.” His tribe has no plans to end its campaign.
Within the Redskins organization, though, the poll’s findings were greeted with an air of finality, as if a war was over.
Snyder, who is in Europe, reacted not with jubilation, a Redskins official said, but with relief.
“The team,” Snyder said in a statement, “will proudly carry the Redskins name.”
Dan Steinberg, Mark Maske, Ian Shapira and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.