Never Say Never: Will Dan Snyder Be Forced to Rename the Washington Redskins?

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Never Say Never: Will Dan Snyder Be Forced to Rename the Washington Redskins?
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"NEVER," Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder told USA Today. "It's that simple."

With that statement, Snyder tried to shut the door on 50 years of debate about his NFL franchise's name and logo.

Apparently, decades of protests and lawsuits from Native American groups haven't gotten through to Snyder.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King, arguably the most influential sportswriter on Earth, stopped using the name—as did USA Today's Christine Brennan, the entire Slate website, and many other media members.

Snyder hasn't heard their silence.

Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray has questioned the name, the District of Columbia council has considered condemning it, and a bipartisan group of the U.S. Congress formally appealed to Snyder's humanity.

Snyder remains unmoved.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

He has plugged his ears and closed his eyes to over 200 years of relocation, subjugation and eradication of people who look like his team's logo by people who look like him.

He does not want to change the name, so he thinks it will never change.

It's easy to imagine a young Snyder playing football with his friends. His ball, his rules—and if they don't like it, he'll take his ball and go home.

Is the Washington NFL franchise really Snyder's ball to do with as he pleases? More importantly, what if all his friends quit first?

 

The Rising Tide

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Peter King was just named editor-in-chief of a new SI website, The MMQB. Built around his brand of football analysis, The MMQB is intended to set standards for football coverage—and King decided he "can do his job without using" the Redskins name.

He's not requiring all MMQB writers to follow his lead, but many—and many who read his work— surely will.

ESPN's Bill Simmons, editor-in-chief of the Grantland sports-and-culture website, has taken to calling the team the "Washington D.C.'s."

Brennan, who covered the team as a beat writer for The Washington Post, penned a beautiful explanation of why she will no longer use the word she's casually dropped "probably 10,000" times.

The Washington City Paper, whose exhaustive 2010 list of Snyder's public and private money grabs and ego trips caused an enraged Snyder to file a baseless libel suit, switched from "Redskins" to "Pigskins" last year.

Monte Burke of Forbes, who should understand the financial ramifications of a change as well as anyone, argues the Redskins should make the change now instead of waiting for the building wave of public opinion to rest.

This is far from a complete list of columnists, analysts, reporters, bloggers and writers who've decided to stop using the name—a list which seems to get longer every day. As more and more influential media members either stop using the name or argue that it's time the Redskins do so, more and more Americans will think harder about the issue.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed 79 percent of Americans don't think the Redskins should change their name. That's hardly a national outcry for change, but it's a 10 percent drop from a 1992 poll conducted by ABC and The Washington Post.

Will the rising tide of public opinion wash away the decades of history supporting the Redskins name?

 

History and Tradition—Where the Redskins Started

Unless you have Native American ancestry, your family likely had been on these shores only a generation or two when laundry impresario George Preston Marshall led a Boston-based group of businessmen in buying an NFL franchise.

The Boston Braves, a squad with a wild past and cornucopia of nicknames, had been named by then-owner James Gaffney. Gaffney, according to Father Gerald Beirne of the Society for American Baseball Research, was a big player in New York's Tammany Hall political machine.

Tammany Hall started as a society of businessmen, founded partly to oppose similar groups still loyal to the English monarchy. They wanted to be "pure Americans," according to Time magazine (subscription required). They took their group's name from Tamanend, a leader of the Lenape tribe. The Lenape inhabited lands that became New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania (the English referred the the Lenape as the "Delaware Indians").

A marble statue of Tamanend was built into the facade of Tammany Hall headquarters.

Tammany Hall, New York City, 1914.

Members of Tammany Hall were called "braves," and their meeting houses "wigwams." Per Leonard Koppett of The New York Times, the Tammany Hall braves, who controlled the Democratic Party in New York, thought it would be a hilarious jab at the royalists and Republicans in Boston to rename the city's franchise "Braves" and make the logo a headdress-wearing Indian chief.

The Boston football Braves went 4-4-2 in their first season—but they lost a whopping $46,000, per the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In today's economic power, MeasuringWorth.com estimates that at $1.8 million. 

Marshall bought his partners out and moved the team's home to Fenway Park, where the more successful Red Sox played. He also hired Lone Star Dietz, a Pop Warner protege and Rose Bowl-winning college coach who claimed Sioux ancestry, as the new coach. Finally, Marshall changed the team's name from "Braves" to "Redskins."

Why? 

According to franchise folklore, Marshall wanted to "honor" Dietz's heritage (as if "Braves" didn't). Linda M. Waggoner of Montana, the Magazine of Western History wrote an outstanding biography of Dietz, though, and in it she noted "newspapers of the day did not mention anything about an homage to Marshall's newly hired coach."

The most likely reason Marshall changed the name, then, is that he was the most notable and influential racist in NFL history.

 

Racism and the Word "Redskin"

Just how offensive is the word "redskin?"

It's a difficult question to answer. Some ascribe the use of word "redskin" or "red man" to the extensive body painting and tattooing several tribes practiced—the Lenape, most famously.

Despite many Americans' fervent remembrance and honoring of the Lenape chief Tamanend, his "Delaware Indians" did not "live in peace as long as the waters run in the rivers and creeks and as long as the stars and moon endure," as he is quoted as saying on his statue in Philadelphia.

The Lenape, now the Delaware, were forced off their land by the sons of original Pennsylvania governor William Penn. Per Encyclopaedia Britannicathe Walking Purchase, which granted the Pennsylvania colony the Delaware tribal land, was a "swindle." Eventually, the Delaware were forced to abandon their lands and move to Ohio.

During the so-called French and Indian War, the Ohio Delawares who sided with the British moved to Detroit, and then to Ontario, Canada where there are two small reservations today. Those who sided with the Americans were forced into Indiana, then Missouri, then Kansas and finally Oklahoma by alternating wars and treaties.

In 1979, the U.S. government stopped recognizing the dwindling Delawares as a tribe at all. The tribe whose customs may have given us the term "redskin" were alternately slaughtered and lawyered across the country and then right out of existence.

Only after a series of lawsuits were the Delaware again federally recognized as a tribe in 2009. They then sued the state of Pennsylvania for roughly 300 acres of the land they were defrauded of in the Walking Purchase so they could build a casino there.

They lost.

For many Native Americans, though—including several major tribes and councils—the word "redskin" will always be associated with the barbaric practice of scalping.

On June 12, 1755, Massachusetts Governor William Shirley instituted a scalp bounty system, paying top dollar for the scalps and hair of Native Americans. In this way, the mass slaughter of Native Americans was incentivized.

It's no wonder people of Native American descent are offended by the term "redskin," as it evokes the blood-soaked skin of their ancestors. That said, there's little evidence that's what "redskin" historically referred to. 

As Ives Goddard, Senior Linguist in the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, explains in an exhaustively researched paper, indigenous peoples began calling themselves red to contrast themselves with white Europeans:

The word redskin reflects a genuine Native American idiom that was used in several languages, where it grew out of an earlier established and more widespread use of "red" and "white" as racial labels. This terminology was developed by Native Americans to label categories of the new ethnic and political reality they confronted with the coming of the Europeans.

Goddard writes that the English and French realized Native Americans were calling themselves "red" and "redskins" in the mid-1700s, but the English word "redskin" wasn't publicly used until a speech by President James Madison in 1807, welcoming tribal leaders from across America to the White House.

If the origin is Native American and benign, does that mean "redskin" isn't racist?

Not at all. Just because many Native Americans proudly called themselves "red men" doesn't mean this song from Walt Disney's Peter Pan isn't excruciatingly racist:

For decades, "redskin" has been the worst epithet that can be used against a Native American. Regardless of the word's origins, there's no doubt that countless Native Americans have personally experienced it as a slur, a curse and a word of hate.

As Indian Country Today's Suzan Shown Harjo wrote in 2005, "Only a few wounding words carry pain so severe they have not been dulled by time. 'Redskins' is such a word for most Native people. Once you've been stung by that word you never, ever forget it or the venom of each modifier, most commonly 'dirty,' 'lazy,' and 'stupid.'"

Harjo was the lead plaintiff in Harjo et al v. Pro-Football, Inc., the trademark lawsuit against the Redskins.

"Redskin" became a vile epithet because racists used it that way—and many Native Americans felt the hate behind it.

 

Racism and the Washington Redskins

When Marshall renamed the Braves to the Redskins, and hired a purportedly Native American head coach, he wasn't doing it to honor anybody's heritage. Marshall was an unabashed racist and proud segregationist.

In 1933, the same season Marshall became sole owner of the team and changed the name, the previously integrated NFL suddenly banned all African-American players. It was done in secret, and none of the NFL owners involved ever came clean.

Thomas G. Smith, a professor at Nichols College in Massachusetts, interviewed several of the owners involved for his book Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins. Per the New York Review of Books, Smith came away with the impression that Marshall was the driving force behind kicking African-Americans out of the NFL.

With his new team name in place, Marshall snatched at any chance to exploit Native American culture, or his idea of it, for marketing. Per Smith, he asked Dietz to don war paint and feathers on game day.

After moving the team to Washington, Marshall—a native West Virginian—aggressively marketed the NFL's only team below the Mason-Dixon line as the South's team. He asked his wife Corinne to pen the painfully stereotypical words to the NFL's first fight song, "Hail to the Redskins":

Hail to the Redskins!

Hail, victory!

Braves on the warpath!

Fight for Old D.C.!

Scalp 'em, swamp 'um

We will take 'um big score

Read 'um, Weep 'um, touchdown

We want heap more

Fight on, fight on, till you have won

Sons of Washington

Rah! Rah! Rah!

Despite the NFL's reintegration in 1946, Marshall refused to sign or draft any African-American players.

"We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites," Marshall famously said, quoted here by Sports Illustrated.

In 1959, in the midst of incredible racial tension in the South and across America, Marshall changed the line "Fight for old D.C." to "Fight for old Dixie" and had the Redskins marching band play "Dixie" between "Hail to the Redskins" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."

It wasn't until the JFK administration took office—and the Redskins committed to build a stadium on federal land—that Marshall was forced to give his proudly racist policies up. In 1961, new Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall noted that if they wanted to play in their new stadium, the Redskins would be subject to federal nondiscrimination policies.

The Redskins integrated by government order in 1962, and changed "Dixie" back to D.C., as reported by the Wilmington News. 

When Marshall passed away in 1969, his will directed the creation of the Redskins Foundation, funded by most of his estate. Per Smith, a stipulation in the will instructed that not a single dollar of the foundation's money be spent on "any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.”

 

The Fight to Change the Name

In 1968, the year before Marshall passed, the National Congress of American Indians started a public initiative to remove offensive, denigrating or stereotypical depictions of Native Americans in popular culture and media.

Stereotypical (or outright racist) sports mascots, movies and television shows (like the Peter Pan clip above) finally received attention for hurting people.

The tide slowly began to turn.

M. David Leeds/Getty Images

In 1972, the Cleveland American Indian Institute filed a defamation lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians over their mascot, Chief Wahoo. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, colleges and high schools began altering or dropping Native American-related names and mascots, including the Dickinson State Savages (now "Blue Hawks").

In 1988, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission issued a report recommending the disuse of Native American-related names. The Minnesota State Board of Education adopted a resolution stating "the use of mascots, emblems, or symbols depicting American Indian culture or race [is] unacceptable."

More and more high schools, colleges and universities got with the program. This culminated in back-to-back resolutions by the National Education Association denouncing derogatory names for sports teams and use of prejudicial terms and symbols. The two votes were in 1991 and 1992, sandwiched around a Redskins Super Bowl victory.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Legendary Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs, with the Super Bowl Championship trophies they won under him.

A group calling itself "The National Summit on Racism and Sports in the Media" used the annual Super Bowl media blitz to call national attention to and protest the Redskins name.

The protest did accelerate the national discussion, but it didn't change many minds. The ABC/The Washington Post joint poll that found overwhelming local and national support for "Redskins" was commissioned shortly thereafter.

Federal nondiscrimination policy furthered the cause one more time. Under a 1946 federal trademark law, trademarked terms and images cannot be "disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous or disreputable."

In 1992, a group of Native Americans filed suit against the NFL, claiming the Redskins trademark violated that law. The wheels of justice grind slowly, as they say, and the legal battle went on for seven years.

In a stunning 1999 ruling, per The Washington Post, the Patent and Trade Office indeed ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, cancelling the Redskins trademark:

"This is fabulous," said Harjo, a District resident and member of the Cheyenne tribe. "I never expected to see justice done in my lifetime. . . . This is an absolutely mighty landmark [of] societal change that we are watching."

Al Bello/Getty Images
Legally pirated RGIII jerseys, anyone?

The ramifications were huge: If the decision were upheld on appeal, either the Redskins would have to change their name or give up their rights to the trademark. If the Redskins chose the latter route, rogue T-shirt makers and shady pranksters might have been able to legally sell items emblazoned with the Redskins name, wordmark and logo.

It didn't last, though. The NFL's appeal wound its way through the courts, and four years later, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly overturned the ruling, citing the legal principle of "laches," or equity.

Basically, because the plaintiffs waited for so long after the Redskins trademarked the name (1967) to file suit, it would no longer be fair to the Redskins to ask them to change it, given all the years of history, tradition and investment. In 2009, the 17-year legal battle ended when the Supreme Court declined to hear a 2009 appeal of the 2003 ruling.

In 2006, a new suit with younger plaintiffs (for whom the laches principle shouldn't apply) was filed, Blackhorse et al. v. Pro-Football, Inc.

 

The Opposition to the Opposition

No culture is a monolith. It's just as dehumanizing to say Native Americans are offended by the Redskins name as it is to use stereotypical depictions of Native Americans as comedic props in cartoons. If we're recognizing the humanity of Native American history and suffering, we have to recognize their individual humanity.

Many Native Americans aren't offended by the name, and some even embrace it.

Paul Woody of the Richmond Times-Dispatch spoke with G. Anne Richardson, chief of Virginia’s Rappahannock tribe, about the name. According to Woody, she "had to stifle a laugh" when he asked her about the nickname.

“We’re more worried about our kids being educated, our people housed, elder care and the survival of our culture," Richardson said. "We've been in that survival mode for 400 years. We’re not worried about how some ball team is named.” 

Robert Green, a retired chief of the Virginia-based Patawomeck tribe, went on SiriusXM NFL Radio to explain the other side of the coin"I've been a Redskins fan for years," Green said, "and to be honest with you, I would be offended if they did change it."

 

James Visser/Getty Images
Redskins great Joe Theismann and the Native American family he visited took no exception to the "Redskins" label.

For many Native Americans, including the family of a sick child visited by former Redskins great Joe Theismann, having NFL greats bear symbols of their culture really is an honor. Theismann told that story to the Argus Leader (via The Washington Post), explaining that he felt pride in the Redskins name and that he tried to honor the Native American people when he wore the uniform.

"I felt like I was representing more than the Washington Redskins," Theismann said, "I was representing the great Native American nations that exist in this country."

No matter how long the debate goes on, there will be people of Native American descent who are against the name and those who are for it—just as there are, and will be, for every other race. How can we weigh all the differing opinions?

Dan Graziano of ESPN.com recently wrote that national public opinion is irrelevant on this issue:

On an issue like this, public opinion is just a distraction. The reason the Redskins should change their name has nothing to do with what anyone thinks now, in the second decade of the 21st century. The reason the Redskins should change their name is the same reason they should have changed it decades ago—the same reason they never should have picked the name in the first place. The word "Redskin" has a well-established history as a racist epithet, and such words have no business being sung and chanted in support of a professional sports team.

 

The Game-Changer

Recently, The Washington Post conducted a local poll and found only 61 percent of D.C.-area residents say they "like" the name, and self-identified Redskins fans support the name at the same rate as the national average.

If that doesn't make Snyder's blood run cold, it should.

The fansthe people who really care about the identity of the team and invest their time and money to make the whole thing goare already so sour on the name that 21 percent of them think it needs to be changed.

Snyder doubtlessly thought he was appealing to his fanbase when he took his "NEVER" stand, but the fans—the ones who buy season tickets, pay parking fees and, per The Washington City Paper, pay full in-stadium price for year-old bankrupt-airline peanutsare increasingly on the other side.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Snyder owns the rights to the Redskins franchise, but the fans hold the real power. All those Washington, D.C.-area people don't just go to football games. And they don't just vote with their dollars; they vote.

This spring, D.C. Councilman David Grosso floated the idea of passing a resolution calling on the Redskins to change their "derogatory, racist name."

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray took it a step further.

In an interview with The Washington Post, he said that any discussion of bringing the team back to the District (away from Landover, Md.'s FedEx Field) would have to be accompanied by "a discussion about" a name change. In his last "State of the District" address, Gray studiously avoided using the Redskins name.

Of course, as Marshall discovered, it's not the District government but the the federal government that has final say about District land—and 10 members of Congress have already weighed in on the issue.

The 10 co-sponsors of H.R. 1278Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act of 2013 mailed a letter to Snyder, the other 31 NFL owners and commissioner Roger Goodell, beseeching Snyder to change the name.

"In this day and age," the letter reads, "it is imperative that you uphold your moral responsibility to disavow the usage of racial slurs." If H.R. 1278 passes (it's currently in committee, where most bills die), it would cancel the trademark of any phrase or mark that uses the word "redskin," immediately accomplishing what the Harjo et al v. Pro-Football, Inc. case failed to after 17 years of litigation.

Even if none of these political threats currently scare Snyder, they'll only get stronger as more Washingtonians and Americans change their minds.

Even if Snyder's principled stand is so strong that he would force the Redskins to play to an empty house, losing millions in the process, his brothers in the NFL fraternity hold the ultimate sway.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Redskins owner Dan Snyder and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell have a laugh with former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In a response to the Congressional letter, per The Washington PostGoodell backed the history and tradition of the name: "The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context."

In an appearance on WJFK-FM, though, Goodell made his personal feelings clear.

"We have to do everything that’s necessary to make sure that we're representing the franchise in a positive way ," Goodell was quoted as saying by The Washington Post. "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."

As part of the NFL's decades-old revenue-sharing plan, 40 percent of the ticket sales at FedEx Field go to the visitor. If public and political opinions continue to drive people away from the Redskins, Snyder's not just losing money for himself but also for his fellow owners.

Yes, Snyder is the "owner" of the Redskins, but he doesn't have carte blanche to run them into the ground.

There are provisions in the NFL constitution and bylaws that allow the owners' executive committee to fine a fellow owner, or—though it's hard to imagine this happening—even strip him of his franchise.

The decades of emotional and financial investment that got Harjo et al v. Pro-Football, Inc. dismissed wasn't just the team's investment—it was the fans' history. Their continued passion and investment is the lifeblood of the team, Snyder's bread and butter. 

The same federal rules and policies that forced Marshall to hire African-Americans may eventually force Snyder to recognize the grief and suffering of Native Americans. If Congress really felt the NFL was out of order, it could even threaten to pull its antitrust exemption—which would destroy the closed ownership model of the NFL and the league as we know it.

Every group and faction that has a stake in the Washington Redskins has power over Snyder, and they're all beginning to turn against the Redskins name.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

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