Next month, the Washington Redskins will fly to a state with a governor who has called their mascot racist, drive to a university with a president who wants their moniker changed, arrive at a stadium built with the help of a multimillion-dollar tribal donation and be greeted with what organizers hope is the biggest-
ever protest of the team’s name.
Minnesota Native American leaders, student organizations and other activists have been preparing for weeks to stage demonstrations outside the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium, where the Redskins will play the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 2. Organizers say Native Americans from at least seven states intend to join.
The game will probably draw even more attention after Native Americans on both sides of the issue made public appearances at Sunday’s game in Arizona. Before kickoff, more than 100 protesters marched outside the stadium as, not far away, a pregame party was held for Native Americans who support the Redskins. The team tweeted a photo of a Zuni family dressed in Redskins gear, and, during the game, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly was shown on TV wearing a Redskins cap as he sat next to team owner Daniel Snyder.
Snyder has vowed to keep the name, which he contends honors Native Americans. The team has cited polls showing that a majority of Americans — and even a majority of Native Americans in one 10-year-old survey — do not find the team name offensive.
Opponents of the name hope the Nov. 2 protest will be much louder. Two months after the university asked the Vikings to limit use of the Washington team name in game-day materials and on public address announcements, a Vikings spokesman last week said that the team still has not decided whether it will agree to the requests.
School officials insist they can’t dictate behavior to the Vikings organization, which is paying the university $300,000 a game to use the stadium while its new facility in Minneapolis is being built. But Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and other stakeholders argue that the university could apply more pressure to the team if it wanted to, pointing to aspects of the facility-use agreement they say would be violated if the team name is used on game day.
Protests at the team’s games are not uncommon, but an unprecedented confluence of timing, location and personalities has made the buildup to next month’s contest in Minnesota unlike any other.
“This issue, this rally, is going to be shown all over the world,” promised David Glass, president of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, which is based in Minneapolis.
Glass said he and his colleagues have talked to the Vikings about Native Americans singing the national anthem before the game and being involved in the halftime show. More than 100,000 Native Americans live in Minnesota.
Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley acknowledged the discussion but said nothing has been decided. He also said the Vikings will continue to talk to university officials about the requests.
“While we take this issue seriously — it’s a significant issue in our state and our community, and we’re sensitive to the concerns raised — we’re also obligated to market the game,” Bagley said.
Last November, when the Vikings hosted the Redskins for the first time since 2007 at their former stadium, more than 700 people protested outside.
At that point, the Vikings had signed a deal with the university to use the school’s field for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. What neither party knew then was that this year’s NFL schedule would again bring the Redskins to Minnesota in November, which is Native American Heritage Month.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) told reporters last year that the team’s name was “antiquated and offensive” and called on members of Congress to boycott games until it was changed. In a YouTube video in February, former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura (I) angrily compared “Redskins” to the N-word.
And then there’s the university.
More than 1,100 students throughout the U-Minn. system identify themselves as Native Americans. The school has an American Indian Student Cultural Center and a Department of American Indian Studies. According to its Web site, the university has produced more Native American physicians than any other medical school in the country but one.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community donated what was then the largest private gift ever — $10 million — to Gophers athletics. That money helped build the stadium, which features a plaza that honors Minnesota’s 11 federally recognized tribes.
More than a decade ago, well before the NCAA restricted use of ethnic mascots and nicknames, the university adopted a policy requiring its athletic department to “make every effort to avoid scheduling home events with schools that use Native American mascots.”
In an e-mail, McCollum pointed to two areas of the Vikings’ contract with the university that she thinks will be violated if the name is used at the game. The agreement requires the Vikings to comply with all “University policies,” and one policy mandates that the school establish an environment “free from racism . . . and other forms of prejudice, intolerance, or harassment.”
Another section of the contract, she said, is even more relevant: “The Vikings shall not take any action or use any language in its use of the Facilities that might reasonably be expected to offend contemporary community standards, such as use of . . . language that might denigrate any class or group of people.”
The contract, she argued, gives the university the legal right “to restrict the use of this racist mascot on campus.”
Two U-Minn. law professors who reviewed the agreement at The Washington Post’s request agreed with McCollum’s second point. The university could make a valid legal argument that the name’s use at the game would breach the contract, they said.
But Bill Donohue, the university’s general counsel, disagreed, saying that dictating NFL nicknames was well outside the agreement’s intent.
The university announced earlier this month that it would host educational programming about the issue in the days leading up to the game, a move welcomed by Chelsea Holmes, president of the American Indian Student Cultural Center. “I feel like the university is doing a lot of things that other places wouldn’t do,” Holmes said.
But Clemon Dabney, executive vice president of the Council of Graduate Students, which passed a resolution calling for the university to prohibit use of the moniker at the game, said the response from university officials has disappointed him.
“It seems like, at least to us as students,” Dabney said, “that they’re looking out for profits more than the culture for students.”