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Adidas stand against Native American high school mascots praised by Obama, condemned by Redskins

Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture, Mike Wang, and Zorayda Moreira-Smith, protest the name of the Washington Redskins, in the shadow of FedEx Field, along with leaders from the African-American, Latino and Native-American communities, at a news conference on Nov. 25, 2013, in Landover, Md. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post
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Adidas announced Thursday that it would offer financial support to any U.S. high school that wants to change its logo or mascot “from potentially harmful Native American imagery or symbolism.”

The declaration by the $18 billion apparel giant — which sponsors Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and produces gear for teams that use Indian monikers — was lauded by President Obama but prompted a pointed accusation of hypocrisy by the team.

At Thursday’s White House Tribal Nations Conference, Obama called Adidas’s effort a “smart, creative approach, which is to say, all right, if we can’t get states to pass laws to prohibit these mascots, then how can we incentivize schools to think differently?”

“I don’t know if Adidas made the same offer to a certain NFL team, here in Washington,” Obama added. “But they might want to think about that as well.”

About 2,000 high schools still use monikers and mascots that “cause concern for many tribal communities,” according to the company, which sent executives to the conference and announced it will be a founding member of a coalition that reviews the issue of Native American imagery in sports.

The Redskins quickly fired back at Adidas.

“The hypocrisy of changing names at the high school level of play and continuing to profit off of professional like-named teams is absurd,” team spokesman Maury Lane said in a statement. “Adidas make hundreds of millions of dollars selling uniforms to teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and the Golden State Warriors, while profiting off sales of fan apparel for the Cleveland Indians, Florida State Seminoles, Atlanta Braves and many other like-named teams.”

Lane also suggested that Adidas “next targets” would be those professional teams, but spokesman Michael Ehrlich said the company wouldn’t pressure the franchises to change.

“It’s important to remember today’s discussion is a voluntary effort and only about high schools,” Ehrlich wrote in an e-mail. “We are not mandating a change. We are committed to continuing a dialogue to look at the issue of Native images in sports and work to find solutions. Ultimately, it’s the leagues, teams, athletes, coaches and fans who decide what changes they want to make. And if they want to make a change and we have the resources to help, then we want to help.”

He also said that Adidas’s stance would not impact its relationship with Griffin, whose name and image is now nearly impossible to find on the company’s Web site.

Oneida Indian Nation leader Ray Halbritter, who’s helped lead the push for change, called Adidas’s decision a “tremendous display of corporate leadership.”

“We hope FedEx, which sponsors the name of the Washington NFL team’s stadium, and other sponsors will step up and follow Adidas’s lead,” he said in a statement. “Adidas clearly understands that this issue is about picking which side are you on. They are choosing to be on the side of inclusivity and mutual respect and have set the bar for other businesses to follow.”

FedEx spokeswoman Rae Lyn Hartley said in an e-mail that the company “has closely followed the dialogue and difference of opinion regarding the Washington Redskins team name, but we continue to direct questions about the name to the franchise owner,” adding that the stadium hosts a number of events besides Redskins games.

Team owner Daniel Snyder has vowed to never change his franchise’s name, insisting that it honors Native Americans.

Adidas’s move comes just weeks after another major victory for activists. Last month, California became the first state in the country to prohibit its schools from using the name.

Often following intense, even ugly debates, high school leaders in New York, Indiana, Oregon, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and elsewhere have already dropped their Native American mascots.

“High school social identities are central to the lives of young athletes, so it’s important to create a climate that feels open to everyone who wants to compete,” Mark King, president of Adidas Group North America, said in a statement. “But the issue is much bigger. These social identities affect the whole student body and, really, entire communities. In many cities across our nation, the high school and its sports teams take center stage in the community and the mascot and team names become an everyday rallying cry.”