I want to see both sides in this. I really do. But two hours after the meaning of the name of Washington’s pro football team was vigorously debated before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board last week in Alexandria, I better understood why I will always be aligned with those who want the name changed.
On one side, in the middle of the courthouse’s atrium, stood the well-coiffed, handsome representative of the team, Bruce Allen — son of George, the late legendary coach; ballboy for Sonny and Billy and the rest of the Over the Hill Gang. Bruce has worked for other NFL franchises, but the team’s current general manager has, deep down, always been what he calls a “proud Redskin,” through and through.
On the other side, sitting quietly a few feet away, patiently waiting her turn before the phalanx of cameras and voice recorders, was a bespectacled, regal American Indian woman, Suzan Shown Harjo — great-granddaughter of Cheyenne Chief Bull Bear, daughter of U.S. soldier Freeland Douglas, a decorated code talker who saw combat in Italy with the U.S. Army’s 45th Infantry Division in World War II; proud American, through and though.
“The argument has always been the same,” Harjo once told me. “ ‘We are honoring you,’ they say. ‘No, you’re not,’ we reply. ‘Shut up,’ they say. That’s pretty much the divide.”
Harjo is 67. She doesn’t need this. She has been fighting forever, it seems, returning land to her people, curating museums, advocating for native peoples’ rights almost all her life. Twenty years now she has been coming to these court proceedings, alongside attorneys who work for free because they believe that rich, white owners don’t get to decide what honors or doesn’t honor an ethnic minority.
This was Bruce Allen’s first day in court. This is what he said when asked if the case was really about money:
“You would have to ask the, uh, I think they’re called the plaintiffs in this case, what their motives are.”
Memo to Allen, Daniel Snyder and the gang: The American Indians who feel disparaged by your team’s name aren’t about to open a Redskins store in the foyer of FedEx Field once the team is again stripped of its trademark rights as it was in 1999 before a higher court overturned the decision on appeal.
They have no interest in marketing Robert Griffin III’s jersey or even monetary reparations for the billions made of a red-pigmented man on a helmet or Barcalounger. Harjo, Amanda Blackhorse and the other, uh, plaintiffs just want you to stop calling yourselves Redskins, because it’s a slur.
“In this day and age, could you foresee a team called the Blackskins?” I asked Allen on Thursday. A three-second pause later, he uncomfortably replied, “I . . . I don’t know.”
I’ll help him: No, America wouldn’t stand for a team called the Blackskins — or the Mandingos, the Brothers, the Yellowskins, insert your ethnic minority here.
Allen gave as strong a defense of why this is important to him and the team as he could. But at one juncture he said, “I know there are Native Americans who are very proud of us, who are fans of our football team.” And unfortunately for him that came across like a man accused of racism might resort to the old “Wait, I have black friends.”
Robert Raskopf, the attorney representing the NFL in court on the name issue since 1992, trotted out the 2004 poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survery on Thursday, one which is purported to have found that 91 percent of 768 people who identified themselves as American Indians on the telephone were not offended by the Redskins nickname.
Adam Clymer, a former New York Times reporter who was in charge of the Annenberg poll, laughed out loud when told the team was using his polling results in their media guide at the time. He then gave me perhaps the best reason of all for changing the name:
“Look, let’s suppose my numbers were 100 percent right, that 90 percent of American Indians were okay with it and that the people on the other end of the phone were actually what they said they were,” he said. “Given that, what if you had a dinner party and you invited 10 people. And by the end of the night it’s pretty clear that nine of them have had a tremendous time and really enjoyed the food and company. But one of them you managed to completely insult and demean, to the point where people around them noticed and it was uncomfortable. So, ask yourself: Were you a social success that night?”
If I’m Snyder right now, I’m proactive before the courts or Roger Goodell takes it out of my hands, before the National Congress of American Indians aligns with another powerful political minority lobby to launch a boycott of my sponsors and starts taking money out of my pocket.
I name them the Washington Warriors. I do away with the spears, the logo and all native peoples’ imagery. I honorably retire the old name in a ceremony to include tribal chiefs and I dedicate the new name to the Wounded Warriors and every soldier who has served our country — including the scores of tribal elders who honorably served the U.S. military over the years. If I were Snyder, I would actually give a percentage of all paraphernalia on new items purchased to a fund for wounded veterans.
Otherwise, with momentum for change growing, the owner will continue to come across as a petty, little man on the wrong side of history. If nothing else, he should do it for karma’s sake.
From the Bambino to the Billy Goat, I never believed in curses. But the other day, a friend mentioned that Harjo had first filed suit for trademark infringement in 1992, the year of the team’s last Super Bowl victory.
The Redskins have won nothing of merit since. They have three playoff victories in the past 21 years. Snyder’s tenure has mostly been forgettable. And whenever momentum builds and the future seems bright, like last year with Griffin, it’s always ripped heartlessly away in some fashion.
Until this organization does right by Harjo and her people, I wouldn’t be surprised if bad karma follows.
“Please don’t call this the Harjo Curse,” she begged me after Thursday’s hearing. “Oh, don’t do that to me.”
No? Okay. I like this better anyway:
The Curse of the Code Talker’s Daughter.
Until it is broken, until the name is changed, this town never sees another Lombardi Trophy.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.