The news that NFL officials have agreed to meet with a Native American group about the Washington Redskins name should come as good news to anyone who finds the mascot of Washington's NFL team offensive.
At the very least, it should be seen as “a move in the right direction," which is what Ray Halbritter, a representative for the Oneida Indian Nation, called the plans for the meeting. Public attention, meanwhile, has been growing. President Obama remarked over the weekend that if he were the team's owner, he'd consider changing the mascot. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray have previously chimed in as well. Given all this, it's easy to see why some sports columnists are viewing the matter of a name change increasingly as a "when" rather than an "if."
But perhaps the best way to tell whether the upcoming meeting over the name controversy has real merit or not is who's invited—and who shows up.
Will Goodell himself go and make good on his statement that "if we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure that we're doing the right things to try to address that." If he doesn't attend, the NFL risks making the meeting look like an empty conciliatory gesture rather than a sincere effort to address such complaints at the very top. Goodell needs to show that the NFL's leadership genuinely cares about this issue, and is genuinely listening.
Perhaps more importantly, will Redskins owner Dan Snyder be there? He did, after all, emphatically tell USA Today back in May that "we'll never change the name" and that "it's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps."
That's not exactly a receptive position from which to engage with the other side. But if Snyder isn't there, the meeting "could be perceived as grandstanding by the league, if not a method of providing cover for Snyder," writes USA Today's Jarrett Bell. I agree: Because Snyder has so adamantly refused to change the name, and because Goodell himself has acknowledged that a change is ultimately up to Snyder, his absence could undermine any credibility the meeting might have. And given his current stance, it's hard to see him taking such an initiative anytime soon.
So if Snyder is unlikely to lead the way with a name change, and Goodell can't make him do it, is there anyone who could bring it about?
Some think the change agents could be other team owners. The Post's Mark Maske reports that while there are no immediate name adjustment plans in the works, "some within the league do wish the Redskins would be more receptive toward listening to opposing views on the matter and considering the concerns of those who express such opposing views." Meanwhile, Bell suggests that the revenue-sharing model of the NFL should prompt the other team owners to "nudge Snyder toward showing some social leadership" and help to prevent the sort of "image hit by association" that could rub off on the other teams.
I've got another idea: What about the players themselves? The NFL is filled with players of minority or ethnic backgrounds for whom this issue should resonate. Even Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said at an Oneida Indian Nation symposium on the issue Monday, "The only difference between [African Americans] and our Native American brothers and sisters is that they are two or three percent of the U.S. people and [an] average American does not have the same amount of contact.”
Players are far more popular with the fans than any NFL executive is, and leaps and bounds more than Dan Snyder is. They could help get the public more firmly behind the idea, and in doing so pave the way for Snyder to consider reversing his stance. Sometimes, leadership doesn't come from the top, but from those best positioned to influence change.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.