Sports fans love their nostalgia. They live for throwback jerseys, urban myths and reruns of classic games, complete with heroes of long ago. If their team relocates, changes its name or folds entirely, they may even shed tears. A team’s name and look can build just as many memories as its on-field performance. And it can stir an equal, if not wider, backlash.
Just ask members of the Oneida Nation, whose campaign against the Washington Redskins’ nickname remains vibrant. Since September, they curated radio ads demanding the team change its name, which they call hurtful to American Indians. And on Wednesday, Oneida representative Ray Halbritter urged National Football League executives Adolpho Birch, Jeff Pash and Paul Hicks that condemning the current name would promote racial tolerance. The 90-minute meeting, held inside New York’s Proskauer building, yielded no immediate policy shifts. But those set on a change insist they will soon get their way.
“This is the beginning of the process,” Oneida spokesman Joel Barkin said. “It’s clear that they don’t see how this is not a unifying term. They don’t have a complete appreciation for the breadth of opposition of Native Americans to this mascot and name.”
The NFL also issued a statement following the closed-door session. “We listened and respectfully discussed the views of Mr. Halbritter, Oneida Nation Wolf Clan Representative Keller George and their colleagues as well as the sharply differing views of many other Native Americans and fans in general,” the release said. “The meeting was part of an ongoing dialogue to facilitate listening and learning.”
American Indian mascots spread across the national sports domain. Over a half-dozen professional teams have nicknames that reference American Indians. But what parts the Washington football team’s case from the rest is its history. The team’s fight song, “Hail to the Redskins,” derives from a Confederate battle hymn. In 1961, when all other NFL teams were integrated, then-owner George Preston Marshall said, “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” Had Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy not threatened to evict Marshall’s team from the federally funded D.C. Stadium, the club would have likely remained segregated for years.
League Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose travel plans kept him from Wednesday’s meeting, has expressed interest in facilitating the nickname debate on his own, without government intervention. But he stresses that a team’s owner — in the Redskins’ case, the outspoken Daniel Snyder — ultimately decides when a new name is appropriate.
Snyder didn’t attend Wednesday’s discussion either. By most indications, he remains unwilling to rename the team he bought nearly 15 years ago. He told USA Today last May, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” And in a letter to fans in October, he wrote, “After 81 years, the team name ‘Redskins’ continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.”
Halbritter’s two-page letter to Goodell, sent in lieu of the commissioner’s absence, shows that he cares little of Snyder’s view. The Oneida leader’s message encourages the league to amend protocol and rename the Redskins, even if Snyder objects. “As Commissioner,” Halbritter wrote, “you have exercised your authority to act pursuant to this provision under circumstances that are far less egregious than the use of a racial epithet as a team’s name, including imposition of sanctions for salary cap violations, prohibitions of on-field celebrations that do not reflect well on the game and punishing off-field misconduct by team officials.” The letter also asks Goodell to hold a forum with all 32 NFL owners during the upcoming Super Bowl week to discuss the nickname’s future.
Regardless of if Goodell takes Halbritter’s advice, the future of the Redskins’ name may rely on funding. So far, neither sponsors, nor broadcasters have announced plans to cut ties with the team. Even if they did, the club’s $373 million in annual revenue and $1.6 billion price sticker offer legitimate clout against critics.
John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, believes money will direct the team’s next moves. He told Washington ABC affiliate WJLA, “In the end it will be economic pressure — whether it’s trademark or stations not being able to use the name on the air — that I think will force them to see the light.”
Activists, meanwhile, will keep shunning the Redskins’ name and its display. In Minneapolis, demonstrators are planning a November 7 rally from the American Indian Movement’s national office to the Metrodome, where Washington’s team will face the Minnesota Vikings that day. The protest will likely address uses of the team name in the media and in sporting venues.
Many of those who endorse a name change insist that they, too, appreciate sports lore. But when controversy surrounds a piece of athletic history, they’d rather build a more tolerant future.
Photos courtesy Associated Press