Eleven days before the United Church of Christ will vote on a resolution calling for its 22,000 members to boycott the Washington Redskins, a team official called a top minister and asked him to speak to three Native Americans who support the controversial name.
The Rev. John R. Deckenback, who oversees churches and clergy in the Mid-Atlantic region, said he received a call Tuesday morning from the team’s chief financial officer, Karl Schreiber, who put the men, all from the Blackfeet Nation, on the phone. One after another, the men explained why the name was an honor and not the racial slur described by other Native American leaders and civil rights groups, Deckenback said.
One of the men, who identified himself as Donald Wetzel Sr., spoke about how his father had designed the team’s logo, Deckenback said.
The phone call came after an invitation was sent to team owner Daniel Snyder to appear at the annual meeting next week of the denomination’s Central Atlantic Conference, where a June 14 vote is scheduled on a resolution that would affect 180 congregations from Richmond to New Jersey.
The resolution calls for the members of the liberal denomination to “join a boycott of games played by the Washington National League Football team and not wear, display or purchase any items with the Washington National League Football team logo until the name changes.”
Team executives repeatedly have defended the name, pointing to a 10-year-old Annenberg Public Policy Center poll showing that 90 percent of Native Americans said they were not offended by the team’s name. Last year, the team sent out a series of e-mails, titled “Community Voices,” containing quotes from the many Native Americans who have contacted the team in support of the name.
On Tuesday, team spokesman Tony Wyllie repeated what he had said in March when the UCC first took up the resolution: “We respect those who disagree with our team’s name, but we wish the United Church of Christ would listen to the voice of the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Native Americans, who support our name and understand it honors the heritage and tradition of the Native American community.”
Deckenback said the other two men to whom he spoke identified themselves as Donald Wetzel Jr. and Mike Wetzel. He said they told him that they were at the team’s training camp this week and had spoken to the players, who took pride in the logo. They also said other tribes were not offended by team’s name.
“I thought it was [a] very unusual interchange in that certainly there are different opinions regarding this question,” Deckenback said. “But it doesn’t really get to the nuts and bolts of should a pro sports team that receives substantial public financial support be using a name that others find demeaning.”
The Oneida Indian Nation, a small tribe in Upstate New York, has been an outspoken opponent of the name, along with the National Congress of American Indians. Both were behind a letter that contained 75 signatures from major Native American, religious and civil rights organizations that was sent to the NFL players last week, asking them to stand up against a name that “does not honor people of color.”
In response, the team asked fans to tweet their support of the name using the hashtag #RedskinsPride — a move that led to a cascade of condemnation on Twitter.
Deckenback said that nothing was asked of him during the 25-minute conversation and that he saw it as a positive sign that the team was “spending energy and time to track us down and talk about it.”