In an effort to mount pressure on the Washington Redskins to change their name, two Native American groups are turning to a population that has been mostly silent on the issue but could wield the most powerful voice yet: the NFL players.
The National Congress of American Indians and the Oneida Indian Nation sent letters Wednesday to more than 2,700 players, asking them to speak out against a name that “does not honor people of color, instead it seeks to conceal a horrible segment of American history and the countless atrocities suffered by Native Americans.”
They also sent the letter to the Twitter accounts of the players, with the hashtag #rightsideofhistory.
“Because you are in the NFL, you command a level of respect and credibility when speaking out about the league’s behavior,” the letter said. “Indeed, players are the most publicly identifiable representatives of the league, which means your support is critical to ending this injustice.”
The letter cites recent comments from Richard Sherman, the cornerback for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Earlier this month, Sherman referred to the Redskins when explaining why he doesn’t believe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would act as decisively as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver if a league owner were caught making racist comments. Silver recently issued a lifetime ban against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for disparaging comments about African Americans.
“No, I don’t,” Sherman said in the interview with Time. “Because we have an NFL team called the Redskins. I don’t think the NFL really is as concerned as they show. The NFL is more of a bottom-line league. If it doesn’t affect their bottom line, they’re not as concerned.”
Goodell and Washington team officials have consistently said they don’t believe the name is disparaging to Native Americans and have cited polls that show that the majority of people share that sentiment.
“Our use of ‘Redskins’ as the name of our football team for more than 81 years has always been respectful of and shown reverence toward the proud legacy and traditions of Native Americans,” Redskins executive Bruce Allen wrote last week in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Allen’s letter was sent a day after Reid and 49 other Democratic senators wrote letters to Goodell urging him to endorse a name change. Five of the team’s biggest stars then tweeted a link to Allen’s letter.
In Wednesday’s letter, signed by more than 75 Native American, religious and civil rights groups, Sherman is described as a potential leader on the issue.
“We are hopeful that other players in the league will follow his strong example and take a public stance against the Washington R*dskins,” the letter reads.
Several former NFL standouts have taken a stance against the name, but with rare exceptions, current players have been silent. In a sport with relatively short playing careers and comparatively little job security, experts say many players regard voicing an opinion publicly on a controversial topic as unnecessarily risky.
“There might be a few players willing to speak out,” said one agent who represents NFL players, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he must deal with the Redskins. “But for the most part, that will be very difficult to get players to engage on a topic like that. You’re asking players to take a stand against their employer, essentially. The NFL has taken the Redskins’ side on this. That’s a lot to ask.”
In January, Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall told Fox Sports that he thought the name “probably should” change, before clarifying his stance that week.
“For me to say what’s right or wrong or what should be changed is out of my pay grade,” Hall said then. “ That burden falls on Dan Snyder and the rest of the ownership committee.”
Snyder has repeatedly defended the name, calling it a “badge of honor” in a letter to fans. In March, the team also launched the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, aimed at addressing the needs of Native Americans.
Wednesday’s letter was sent to 2,483 players listed on team rosters, along with 257 players that have been drafted this year.
Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said in a statement Tuesday that the players were in a unique position to stop the league from promoting a name that was created by George Preston Marshall, the team’s first owner and anti-integrationist. Marshall famously resisted integrating the team until 1961 under threat from the federal government, making the Redskins the last team with an all-white roster.
“NFL players, many of whom are people of color, should not be forced by the league to promote this racial slur on their uniforms,” Halbritter said.
NFL Players Association officials were not immediately available to comment about the letter. But in January, DeMaurice Smith, the player’s association executive director, said in an interview with The Washington Post that a “broad discussion” about the Redskins name is justified.
“I grew up a Redskins fan and I grew up in Washington,” Smith said while in New York for the Super Bowl. “And as we’ve said before, I think we’re in a better world if we’re not intentionally offending anyone. I think that any time we engage in a broad discussion, whether it be with fans or other interested parties about how to do our jobs better, and that might include the Redskin name, I think that’s positive.”