Will anyone defend the Washington Redskins name?

By Jack Shafer
October 10, 2013

For the past 14 years, Dan Snyder, principal owner of the Washington Redskins football franchise, has defied incessant calls from activists and journalists to change his team’s name and Indian logo to something less “offensive.” In May, he added extra rebar and a moat of burning oil to his previous vows on the name-change, telling USA Today that “We’ll never change the name,” adding, “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

Obviously, Snyder could never have thought that a good liberal like President Barack Obama would side with him on the issue. The best Snyder could hope for was that the president would remain too busy with domestic and global crises to comment on the dispute.

Then, in an interview last weekend with the Associated Press, Obama suited up and entered the name-change field. What was his position on the name of the Washington Redskins football team, the AP asked. Is it insulting to Native Americans? Did he think it should be changed? Obama acknowledged the controversy diplomatically, careful not to rile Redskins loyalists, but said that if he were an owner of the team, “I’d think about changing it.”

The loss of the president was not as grave as the loss of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who retreated from his adamant support of the Redskins name last month when he told a local D.C. radio audience, “If one person is offended, we have to listen.” Just four months ago, he wrote a letter to 10 protesting members of Congress that the nickname was “a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”

Now, with Obama opposing him and the commissioner of his own league backing down, it’s officially Dan Snyder against the world.

Snyder doesn’t lack for advocates, but beyond people on Snyder’s payroll, it’s hard to find anybody who will sincerely defend the Redskins name. His lead advocate these days appears to be his attorney Lanny J. Davis, former Clinton flack, lobbyist for African despots, and Washington laughingstock. Hiring Davis is the Washington way of acknowledging that you’ve run out of credible allies.

What’s amazing about Snyder’s last stand is how long it’s taken for the anti-Redskins cause to reach critical mass. According to one scholar, the campaign against Indian team names can be traced to the 1940s, when the National Congress of American Indians began to fight unflattering stereotypes of Indians across the culture. In the early 1970s, such schools as Stanford University and Dartmouth College surrendered their Indian monikers, beginning a trend at colleges and high schools that continues today, thanks to the policing efforts of college athletics.

According to a recent Washington Post piece, a dozen Native American activists confronted the team president in 1972, insisting that he replace the name because it was a “derogatory racial epithet.” That year, the team’s fight-song lyrics, which included (pdf) such Indian specific lines as “Scalp ‘em, swamp ‘em” and “Touchdown we want heap more” were rewritten. Protests continued into the 1980s. In January 1988, a group called the Concerned American Indian Parents distributed to the press agit-prop posters depicting the fictitious “San Diego Caucasians” and “Kansas City Jews,” and just prior to the kickoff of that year’s Super Bowl between the Washington Redskins and the Denver Broncos, a plane towed a banner over the stadium reading “Make The Redskins America’s Team. Change The Name.” Embracing those themes was Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, whose April 17, 1988 column (paid) amplified the group’s anti-Redskins arguments. Jack Kent Cooke, then-owner of the team, would not yield, and was quoted by Cohen as saying, “I like the name, and it’s not a derogatory name.”

However odious the Redskins moniker may be to some, the most ardent defenders of identity politics and enemies of racism — I’m talking about you, Mr. and Ms. Liberal — never shied away from occupying the owner’s box during home games. Over the years, such liberals as Tip O’Neill, Jack Valenti, Joe Califano, Ed Muskie, Douglas Wilder, Earl Warren, Stewart Udall, George McGovern, Tom Clark, Eugene McCarthy, Al Gore, Warren Magnuson, Stuart Symington, Byron White, and others enjoyed the team’s hospitality. Even Ethel Kennedy accepted eight tickets from the team for her family. If the name disparaged and denigrated Native Americans, its obviousness was lost on the team’s liberal guests — or they ignored it. Dan Snyder’s box is more likely to be filled with TV journalists than politicians.

You could argue that today’s critics of the name are guilty of “presentism,” that is, they’re lamely using present-day standards to judge the people who lived in the past. And yet the Washington Post has been editorializing in favor of a name-change since 1992 (paid), and its many columnists have, too, and in a persistent fashion. If opinion journalism wasn’t enough to keep the issue alive, an ongoing and hugely unsuccessful legal effort by activists to rescind the team’s federal trademark protection has preserved the issue as a news staple. Federal law prohibits trademark protection for names that are “disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous, or disreputable,” and the plaintiffs insist “Redskins” qualifies on all counts. If the activists won the case, it would be only a symbolic victory. The team couldn’t be forced to change its name, but the ruling would reduce the team’s power to prosecute producers of unauthorized Redskins paraphernalia — jerseys, rugs, banners, coffee cups, caps, etc. Still, it’s a sound strategy: Every time the plaintiffs lose or even plead in court, they win additional public support, in part because nobody likes being called a racist.

Cooke, who died in 1997, fended off such protests better than Snyder because his teams were more successful than Snyder’s, and all that positive football news crowded the protesters’ critical news into the margins. He knew how to work the press better, having owned newspapers and television stations himself. Cooke was so accessible to reporters that when I worked for an alternative weekly in the late 1980s and phoned his office for a comment about his stadium plans, he surprised me by answering the call himself to deal quick and humorous answers to my questions.

Snyder is no Cooke: He looks like an overgrown bratty little boy, whereas Cooke presented himself as a “Squire,” and actually got people to call him that. Touchy about criticism, he famously sued Washington City Paper and its writer, Dave McKenna, for libel after it published an unflattering article about him in 2010. Snyder eventually dropped the case, but not before it detonated in his face like a cartoon bomb, making him look like a humorless, vindictive bully. If you had no opinion on Snyder before, you had a negative one now.

Among other things, the lawsuit (pdf) demonstrated Snyder’s situational approach to visual imagery: It asserted that City Paper‘s playful cover photo was anti-Semitic because it penciled in “horns on his head, bushy eyebrows, and surrounded by dollar signs.” If the suit’s analysis of the cover was accurate (and it wasn’t), then perhaps the Amerindian depicted on the Redskins logo and the team name could be inflicting unnecessary mental anguish on people!

A mudslide of opprobrium has been heaped on Snyder in recent weeks as publications (Washington City PaperSlateNew Republic, and Mother Jones) have declared that the team nickname will no longer appear in their pages. No big deal, of course, as these publications aren’t exactly full-fledged members of the sporting press. But Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King, Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter John Smallwood, Grantland’s Bill Simmons, USA Today‘s Christine Brennan and others say they’ll no longer use the name. Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wise, who opposes the name, says it will be gone in five years, tops. “And it’s about time,” he recently wrote. The issue has become such an article of liberal faith that the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd set aside her meditations about the government shutdown long enough yesterday to join the media gang-tackle.

In an open letter to Redskins fans yesterday (pdf), Snyder restated his contention that the name is a symbol of “strength, courage, pride, and respect,” oddly echoing without credit the June letter to Members of Congress by NFL Commissioner Goodell, who also claimed “the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride, and respect.” Snyder also cited a 2004 (pdf) poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center that found no groundswell of opposition against the Redskins name among Native Americans, as well as an April 2013 Associated Press poll that found four in five Americans don’t think the name should be changed.

Snyder seems to assume that he’s on the winning side of a public referendum, but that’s not how politics works. The people who actually turn out to vote determine the result, and Snyder’s “supporters” as collected in the poll figures aren’t passionate enough about the team name to assist him. With the media establishment joining the Native American activists against Snyder, a container ship filled with Lanny J. Davis clones will not be enough to change the outcome. Snyder needs someone with pedigree and status in this realm to defend him, a civil rights leader, a coalition of past and current players, or even a Colin Powell would do. But that someone either doesn’t exist or is waiting until the 11th hour to appear.

Snyder is losing this one, and will continue to lose, perhaps continuing to lose status in the public eye after he changes the name. But he doesn’t mind. He’s good at losing. In the 15 seasons of the Snyder era, his team sports a win-loss record of 102-126, and it isn’t getting any better.

You can never beat such a determined loser.

******

Maybe Snyder could hire that guy who used to wear a rainbow afro wig and flash a “John 3:16″ sign at network cameras from his end-zone seat during point-after attempts. Somebody. Anybody. Send nominations for a new team name via emails to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed believes in running the blitz on every play. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III waves the team banner during pre-game introductions before playing the Philadelphia Eagles in their NFL football game in Landover, Maryland September 9, 2013.     REUTERS/Gary Cameron

36 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I root for the Dolphins and I side with Snyder. It’s his team and his fan base who pay the tab. Those who don’t like it can root for Dallas.

Posted by jbeech | Report as abusive

I guess it’s fair game to tackle the Redskins, and by this time I guess it’s White Flag waving time. If the majority of American Indians are against the name, find something else and build your tradition from that point!
I’d like to note (no disrespect intended) but what “constitutes” an American Indian: Tribes differ as to how much Indian blood you have to be called a member of that tribe (!) and I believe I read that 1/32 of AI blood makes you an American Indian in some instnaces. No standardization at all. Sort of like the racist tests of our country where a drop of Black blood made you a Black in Southern States! Then it thrust you into a segregated environment, where now, partial “blood” gives you a seat at the casino…
One objection to this fuss: when this is settled, and yes, Dan Snyder, focus on team winning and not trying to push back the tide (say–how about the Washington Tide?!) I’d like to see Native American terminology used to include me. I was born here. Served in the Army (overseas) during WWII; later worked for a couple of Intel agencies; had jobs (civilian) with Navy, Army, Air Force. (Missed the Marines, but then again, Navy sort of encompasses that cohabitation. Also was employed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center….and so on. I think I can claim Native American status-heck; I wasn’t born in Timbuktu or Tierra del Fuego, but U S A. I sometimes think I’m 99-44/100 percent “pure” American. So Please, old buddy, let me be called a Native American, and the 1/32 part — well, for American Indians, join the tribe.
The Museum of AMERICAN INDIAN in DC got it right. Although maybe after we settle Snyder’s hash, we can change that! Right on!!

Posted by taleriasport | Report as abusive

If we are to carry forward the argument of not having names that are offensive to ‘native-Americans’, then we must carry that forward to re-name certain states of the Union. First, you have not 1, but 2 Dakota’s, an Illinois, a Utah, and several others that border on offensive.

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

What a foolish question Jack. Of course no one within the media’s grasp will defend it. Political Correctness still reigns supreme. It is the medias best and favorite tool and they will use it as often as possible.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Having 1/32 AI blood, I must say, I’m not offended. Perhaps a change to the Washington Thinskins?

Posted by Jameson4Lunch | Report as abusive

I’m with them! Let’s rename everything that has anything at all to do with them, and erase every mention of them in history books (‘though there won’t be much to erase). We should just pretend that they never existed. They were nothing but a short, wrong turn in evolution anyway.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

Just shorten it to Skins, which is what most people call them in shorthand anyway, and the problem is solved.

The comment that disturbed me the most was from Goodell – ‘if just one person is offended we need to listen’… nope, sure don’t. This over-the-top PC thuggery is exactly the kind of idiocy that gives legitimacy to extremists and religious nutbars, because it’s not kosher to insult them on their idiocy. Some people will be (go out of their way to be) offended by just about anything; the line must be drawn somewhere and commonsense make a comeback!

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Growing up in Jersey, we always just called them the Washington Foreskins.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Now that’s funny @AlkalineState, LMFAO!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

IT isn’t exactly PC to point out that the name Redskin is as much an epithet as the word Ni&&er or the word K!ke …

Dakota/Utah are proper nouns, not a snarling attack word…

I don’t really care either way, but you really have to try to not see the problem with this particular name. you doth protest too much, methinks?

On the other hand I would support the name the Braves. No insult to that team name, just a proud nod to a revered position in the tribe.

Just my 2 cents

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

Jack,
I’m not a big football fan and definitely not a Redskins fan. But I’d love to see you address two issues:

1) Why is Obama even getting involved in this? There are certainly higher priorities like running the country and sneaking abortion funding into Obamacare.

2) If he’s after inappropriate names why doesn’t he stand up for his own half race and attack the:

UNCF -United Negro College Fund
NAACP – National Association for the Advance of Colored People

These on the surface are much more offensive. Just wondering why you have no column on those offensive names?

Posted by MaddyH | Report as abusive

This is DC…. How about Washington Red-Inks?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

! :D awesome alkalinestate, I love it! The mascot can be an accountant shrugging his shoulders!

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

Why isn’t Obama OUTRAGED about the NAACP and the UNITED NEGRO COLLEGE FUND? Why are you not writing a column about their offensive names?

Posted by MaddyH | Report as abusive

My problem is that this issue has been around for decades. The native Americans failed miserably at every level of the court system so far to get the decision they wanted. The courts favor free speech on all levels which favors the team. Something that the Wapo’s writers enjoy themselves but seem to disdain in others.

Posted by kevrey | Report as abusive

…”Snyder doesn’t lack for advocates, but beyond people on Snyder’s payroll, it’s hard to find anybody who will sincerely defend the Redskins name.”…

I’m not on Dan Snyder’s payroll and I’d sincerely defend the Redskins name (if I had the time to do such).

I decided before making my own uneducated opinion on the subject was to do some actual research, something that most of the news media has failed to do other than just repeat what the other news outlet just said.

Here are a couple of things that I found…

“I AM A RED-SKIN”: The Adoption of a Native American Expression (1769–1826)

http://anthropology.si.edu/goddard/redsk in.pdf

(a very good read and greatly inspiring I might add)

Navajo Nation: Red Mesa High School — Home of The Redskins

http://www.rmusd.net/education/component s/sectionlist/default.php?sectiondetaili d=86&

I became a Redskins fan as a child who had compassion for American Indians, which was inspired from the Cowboy Western TV shows and movies that my stepfather watched. I always rooted for the Indians in those TV shows and movies though knowing based on the plot of the story, they’d be the losers in almost every time. But I soon discovered the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry at around age 9 and the first game I watched was the NFC Championship between the Redskins and the Cowboys and my compassion for American Indians carried over and seeing the Redskins beat the Cowboys (31-17) in that game cemented me being a diehard fan of the Redskins.

One thing I’d love for Dan Snyder and the Redskins organization to do is be more engaged in the Native American communities and provide a public stage for them to express their traditions and heritage as well as invest in those communities like he does for the communities surrounding the DC area.

Posted by dcatt | Report as abusive

Article I came Across on the history of the name-
Washington Post
American Indians Among Admirers Of Redskins Name

By Marc Fisher
Saturday, January 26, 2002

“The official story, says team spokesman Karl Swanson, is that when the Boston Braves football team left Braves Field to play at Fenway Park in 1933, owner George Preston Marshall needed a new name for his squad.

“He chose Redskins in honor of Lone Star Dietz, the team’s coach and an Indian who often wore an eagle feather headdress, beaded deerskin jacket and buckskin moccasins. Dietz brought four to six — accounts vary — Indian players with him to Boston from the Haskell Indian School in Kansas, where he had coached for four years. “

Posted by norah_elliott | Report as abusive

How about The Washington PrimaryColorThatIsNotBlueAndNotGreenSkin s?

Posted by AngusBlackwylde | Report as abusive

Let’s call it the Washington Whites … that would be PC but very offensive to everyone ..

Posted by Astrobyte | Report as abusive

Yeah … and what about the state INDIAN A … that is definitely an epithet … the “tribes” want to “Braves”, “Indians”, “Braves”, “Chiefs” and others to be renames because they are “so called offensive”

Gee … what about the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida all named after INDIAN tribes ….

Posted by Astrobyte | Report as abusive

I hate these moderated comments … only the PC comments get through … what a crock

Posted by Astrobyte | Report as abusive

This isn’t an issue of “Indian team names”, but epithets. Maybe they should change the name to the Washington Niggers, Kikes, Dagos, Waps, Spics, Micks, Retards or Morons? After all, all the arguments used to justify Redskins apply to Niggers. Actually, more American Indians have been killed in genocide than Blacks.
Of course, we know that the United States no longer suffers from racisism and other bigotry. At least, that’s what the Supreme Court believes and they should know.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt, This is My Story

A word or concept like “Redskins” is being challenged by a overly politically correct society. They say the context of the term is offensive and derogatory to Native Americans. They are referring to a context or use of the word that hasn’t been used in over 130 years. Ironically, while driving through the south west, they referred themselves as “Indians” or “Indian reservations” or “Indian casinos” which I think is more offensive and derogatory. They are not from India, They are Native Americans but yet they use the term Europeans gave them based on a misunderstanding. Open your eyes please.

Definitions change, i.e. Yankee used to be a derogatory term used against the northern Americans or Americans in general but now is a symbol of absolute pride to the very same people.

Every team seeks out a logo and name that defines them as a unit and entity. Why would an organization choose a team name/symbol that is derogative and reflects a negativity upon themselves? “Hail to the Redskins”, “fight on, sons of Washington” which is sung countless times during game day is a rallying chant of pride, not a hatred or disrespect of native Americans. Redskins are a symbol of brave, courageous, warriors that our franchise uses to rally behind and identify with. They look to Native Americans as an honorable comparison to themselves.

So now we have a group of people offended because a population, of non Native American descent, claim to be proud to be or strive to represent a “Redskin”. These are the same people that look at the face value of a situation and pay no attention to the modern definition or intended context. If you don’t like it or if you are that petty to try and affect a population of fans, and if you succeed, do you really think it would help or hurt your overall cause of recognized “respect”?

Posted by nugzi | Report as abusive

When we change the name of the state “Indiana” to “Native Americana”, I will consider a change to the name Redskins.

Posted by TomJuan | Report as abusive

I spoke with my husband about a new name and we’ve decided it might be cool to name them the Washington Georges.

Posted by ImaniB | Report as abusive

Anyone committed to changing the name of the team may step up at any time and purchase the team. (I think the market value is a bit over $1.0 billion.)

We have become a nation where those with no financial skin in the game want to dictate how others, who assume all the business risk, manage their business. It’s all about property rights. If you’re that serious about changing the Redskins name, then don’t buy a ticket, a jersey or watch them on TV. If enough people do so, then change will happen.

Put your money where your mouth is if you want to influence the agenda. Otherwise, you opinion is worth exactly what it costs you–nothing.

And, Roger Goodell shooting his mouth of is not any more valid. He is an employee only. Thus, he has nothing at risk other than his salary.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Any who proclaim the name offensive I dare you to look up the name of the Red Mesa Arizona High School mascot. In case you’re wondering, RedMesa High School is on a Navajo reservation. Here’s a link for the lazy.
http://www.rmusd.net/education/component s/sectionlist/default.php?sectiondetaili d=86&

I guess those stupid Navajo are just too dumb to realize that they’re supposed to be offended!

Posted by mdiv2009 | Report as abusive

Sonoma State University (part of the California State University system) recently changed its name from “Cossacks” to “Sea Wolves”, when a sheltered but inquisitive student association member looked up Cossack on the internet and found their history to be reprehensible.

If this is the trend, whether Cossack, or Redskins or Indians, etc – then this begs the question, “Why are Vikings, Pirates, Bucaneers, Raiders not similarly considered verboten?”

If just the name itself is objectionable, because it is considered abusive or in poor taste, then why is Notre Dame allowed to retain “Fighting Irish”? There is no other sports mascot name that is more derogatory than the depiction of a drunken Irish immigrant, dressed as on out-sized leprechaun.

Posted by mquesenberry | Report as abusive

If you win the war (much as we won the war with against the Indians), you get to name the teams. Therefore, I propose we change Atlanta’s team to the Slave-owners. I doubt the good people of Atlanta will be offended. After all, it’s just in good fun. Lighten up, slave-owners.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I think they should change the name. It has been too long. Washington Redskins fans will get over it and rally behind the new team name. Snyder is acting like a loser.

Posted by mcjagger3000 | Report as abusive

I will not defend it! I want the owners to put a pic of a white patriotic solder on all their stuff and change their name to “The White Skins”. Just one person’s opinion.

Posted by Bighammerman | Report as abusive

I will not defend it! I want the owners to put a pic of a white patriotic solder on all their stuff and change their name to “The White Skins”. Just one person’s opinion.

Posted by Bighammerman | Report as abusive

I have an idea…let’s start “outlawing” words, or better yet, maybe we should start small and just outlaw syllables at first, then words.

After that we can move on to outlawing whole sentences, and paragraphs. Thereafter, perhaps we can move on to the real fun — burning books and other materials we find offensive.

Personally, I (a gray-haired, conservative, white male approaching 70) find the term “Redskins” offensive…when on occasion I hear the term uttered in some black and white, 1950′s western-movie as I watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I am shocked by how far we’ve come in our social posturing, but how little we’ve evolved in our hearts.

I get the same sensation when I see the Westboro Baptists desecrating the funeral of a fallen warrior, or an African-American “gangster” pouring out his racial venom for a paying audience of young people, or I hear some white-haired “conservative” cretin blame the female victim for looking attractive before she was raped.

My problem with shutting them up forcibly is that the contagion of censorship, and the suppression of even ugly, abhorrent expression is worse than the expressions themselves.

The Washington Redskins organization is a business…it endures at the will of its investors, customers, and other stakeholders; if you don’t like their name, their owner, their game, or whatever…just don’t buy what they’re selling. Vote with your feet…don’t watch any game they play in, live and in person, or on TV…and let the advertisers know you’re not watching. Don’t go to the game and buy their products. Don’t buy their caps and shirts at Amazon.com. Shun them!

Then the owners can use their freedom of expression to respond or react to our message of outrage.

Posted by kbill | Report as abusive

There is nothing in the Constitution of the United States or any of the states that affords anyone the right “not to be offended”.

It is only social protocol that determines if a term is offensive–much like using foul language. Foul language may (or may not) be acceptable in social or business situations, but it is always offensive in church.

As stated above, vote with your money. If you do not like the “Redskins” name, then do not watch them on TV, buy their products, or attend their games. The owner will respond accordingly. However, if the stands are full each game and TV ratings remain high, the remainder of the population does not agree with you. Case closed.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Who cares about this disgusting industry or what they call themselves. I call them heath destroying knuckle dragging Neanderthals. They are non-for profit thief’s, who take tax dollars from communities, so people can watch a bunch of men destroy their bodies over a pig skin in a arena. Then most of those players spend the rest of their lives in pain and on pharmaceuticals. They are turned into gambling meat, similar to a race horse, and everybody thinks this is just grand.

I have a good idea for a new name, instead of Red Skins, change to Scrotal Fungus.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

The likelihood of anyone being accepted by any Native American tribe is remote unless it is one of the ones not on the treaty list. They will ask you for money. Read this article.

http://dna-explained.com/2012/12/18/prov ing-native-american-ancestry-using-dna/

As for the redskins, these American Indians must not the history of the name and where it came from. Native Americans coined that word. They came up with it and it was used benignly over years. Just because some have used it a little different doesn’t mean it’s a derogatory word and dictionaries have misrepresented the word. There are speeches in the Smithsonian showing Chieftains using that word to mean all American Indians. These people need to back off in my opinion where they have been trying to get it changed for years or not. Everyone is complaining about being offended by something these days. This is just a sports team.

This is a very good article by a man well versed as to the history of the word redskin.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valle y/2013/12/18/redskins_the_debate_over_th e_washington_football_team_s_name_incorr ectly.html

Posted by Mollidew | Report as abusive