Even before Thursday’s release of a Washington Post poll showing that nine in 10 Native Americans aren’t offended by the Washington Redskins name, most NFL owners seemed to regard the issue as a private matter between owner Daniel Snyder and the league office. For the most part, they felt it didn’t warrant their concern until or unless opposition to the name threatened the league’s economic interests.
That sentiment against wading into the issue is likely to be bolstered by the poll’s findings, one NFL team owner said Thursday.
“I do think [the] poll will affect the attitudes of some owners,” the owner said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity. But he added that there has been little conversation about the topic among NFL owners to start with. “There has not been much discussion about this, at least to my knowledge,” the owner said. “I get the sense that this issue is gradually going away.”
Snyder issued a statement welcoming the poll’s findings. “We are gratified by this overwhelming support from the Native American community, and the team will proudly carry the Redskins name,” it said.
Several who have represented the Redskins — including Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs and Super Bowl champion quarterback Joe Theismann — said they hoped the findings would quiet the emotionally charged debate.
“I think [the poll’s findings] are important to our whole Redskins community,” said Gibbs, who led the Redskins to three Super Bowl championships before his 1996 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gibbs explained that he’d been a Redskins fan since growing up in western North Carolina, where at the time they were the only pro team on TV. “And when I [got] a chance to coach the Washington Redskins, I can honestly say I do not remember anybody saying anything negative to me about the Redskins name,” Gibbs said. “The whole time I was there, I associated ‘Redskins’ with courage and bravery.”
Given the long history of debate over the name, Theismann said he wasn’t sure the issue would ever fade from view. “But I think that this poll, as it shows 90 percent of Native Americans favoring the name, it hopefully will put it to rest for a long time,” he said.
At least one former player, Pro Bowl offensive lineman Tre Johnson, said he felt the view of the 10 percent surveyed who are offended was still relevant.
“What about the 10 percent, then?” said Johnson, a Temple graduate and self-described skeptic. He drew a parallel to use of the n-word in the African American community.
“There are a lot of people in our culture today who are African American and use the [n-word],” noted Johnson, who played for the Redskins from 1994 to 2000. “Well, I don’t want that used because it affects my kids and their view of the world and their view of themselves. I might be in the 10 percent of African Americans on that, based on the use in music and movies today. But I still feel offended by that word, and I don’t want it used. I don’t want my kids and future generations thinking that term is acceptable or has any valid definition going forward in the 21st century.
“It all comes down to whether this is a majority-wins issue. Do we care about everybody? Or do we care about most people? Do we only care about the majority and the majority culture? This has been an argument of minorities for some time.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league would have no comment.
Debate about the team’s nickname, which Snyder has insisted is an honorific and vowed never to change, has waxed and waned over time.
According to one former team executive, it simply wasn’t an issue in the early years of Snyder’s ownership. “You could put the amount of mail we got on it every year into a little folder,” said the former executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the strong feelings about the issue.
But it gained traction in recent years, with various American Indian advocacy groups conducting letter-writing campaigns, staging protests, pursuing legal action and lobbying politicians and media commentators to bring their influence to bear.
In January 2014, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the league was sensitive to the concerns of those who opposed it. But he cited polling data from 2004, the last time a comprehensive survey of Native Americans had been conducted, that showed that nine of 10 supported the name. “We are listening,” Goodell said at the time. “We are being respectful to people who disagree. But let’s not forget this is the name of a football team.”
In May 2014, 50 Democratic members of the Senate sent letters to Goodell urging him to support a name change.
In November 2014, thousands of protesters — Native Americans and non-Native Americans among them — halted traffic outside the University of Minnesota stadium that was hosting a Vikings-Redskins game.
Nonetheless, there was no evidence of unease among the NFL’s corporate sponsors or the Redskins’ principal backer, FedEx, whose CEO, Fred Smith, is a part-owner of the team and whose name is on the team’s Landover stadium. On Thursday the Memphis-based company issued a statement re-iterating its pride in the association.
“FedEx has closely followed the dialogue and difference of opinion regarding the Washington Redskins team name, and this poll is consistent with other research we’ve seen concerning the name,” Patrick Fitzgerald, a FedEx spokesman, wrote. “We highly value our sponsorship of FedEx Field, which not only hosts the Washington Redskins, but is also home to a variety of major entertainment and sports events and multiple community activities.”
That said, Marc Ganis of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports business advisory firm, said he believed the controversy had the potential to hurt the team’s brand — until now.
“This had been taken up as a cause-celebre, primarily by politicians looking for headlines,” Ganis said in a telephone interview. “Continued controversy would have been damaging to the brand. People would have thought that to wear Redskins merchandise, or even refer to the team as the ‘Redskins’ on air somehow was offensive to Native Americans. What this poll demonstrates is that it is not. That whole cadre of people who thought they were jumping on the political cause now look like idiots.”
Rick Maese and Mike Jones contributed to this report.