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Why Dan Snyder Won't Relent on 'Redskins,' and Why I Did

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Why Dan Snyder Won't Relent on 'Redskins,' and Why I Did
Evan Vucci/AP Photo

There are many ways to begin to understand Dan Snyder and his almost pathological stubbornness in refusing to change his NFL team's nickname that many in the American Indian community and others find racially offensive.

There are many ways, yes, but the most important is understanding two vital facts about him.

Snyder is a Marylander and a lifelong fan of the team.

Those two facts drive him, his philosophy and his inability to see the other side of the nickname issue. I know this because I am both as well.

Let me explain.

There are other reasons why Snyder remains immovable on the nickname. But I believe it is his Marylander fandom that drives him the most.

Snyder's stance on the nickname has been consistent. "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER," Snyder told USA Today in May of 2013. "You can use caps."

Contacted recently, a team spokesman said Snyder was unavailable for comment. But it's easy to predict his response. He won't back down simply because people tell him to. In fact, if there is anything Snyder has proved in his 15 years of owning the team, it is that the opposite will happen.

The issue of what is offensive to American Indians has become a contentious one, even opening another front in the culture war. It has been argued in sports bars and living rooms, from the nation's capital to Indian reservations, and even caused one of the leading pop singers to apologize for an act that some saw as wrongheaded.

People like Snyder who grew up fans of the team protect the nickname because it has become a part of their identity. It's who they are, how they see themselves. And though deep in their core they know the nickname is wrong and offensive, some fight to protect it, because they see it is a part of history. Their history.

I know all this because I lived it. I was born in D.C. but raised in one of the great social experiments of the 20th century, a planned community called Columbia. The city's goal was to eliminate racial, religious and financial segregation.

At the time of Columbia's birth in the mid-1960s, nearby Virginia banned interracial marriage. D.C. was highly segregated, as was most of the state of Maryland. As time went on, in the years after my family moved there, I grew up with every conceivable race—including American Indians—befriended all ethnicities and dated girls from different racial backgrounds.

I was arrogant in my belief there wasn't a single bigoted bone in my body, while unaware I loved a team that racially insulted a people.

My high school in Baltimore had kids who lived in the neighborhood where The Wire was based. In my DNA is D.C./Maryland.

Marylanders are among the most insecure and proud people in the country. They straddle the line between genteel Southernness and hearty East Coast abruptness. But mostly, we are insecure. Good, decent people…but insecure.

AP Photo
Fireworks over the Inner Harbor in Baltimore on the Fourth of July.

Maryland is the little brother while New York struts on the red carpet for a movie premiere. Pennsylvania has Philly, which possesses a greater sense of historic greatness. Same with Delaware. Many Americans view Washington as a symbol of gridlock, but it is the nation's capital.

Baltimore has a harbor and crab cakes. That's it. This makes Marylanders, particularly the ones closer to D.C., feel like second-class citizens, and we grab on to any sense of pride we can. That's where Washington's football team comes in.

I followed the Colts and Washington, gravitating toward the Washington team, long before the Colts moved in the dead of night. That Baltimore stole a team from Cleveland cemented my Washington allegiance.

The only time I thought of the nickname as a slur while growing up was during Catholic high school. A Colts fan and I got into a fight when he called my team the "N----rSkins." We scrapped and both got detention or "JUG" (Justice Under God). I was offended at the use of the N-word but not at "Skins." My love of the team allowed me to be angry over one slur while failing to recognize the other.

The Washington team made us feel relevant. Washington fandom has long been extremely underrated. Everyone around me—family and friends, neighbors, the postman, the babysitter, everyone—cherished the team. When it played, time stopped. A football team placated our insecurity.

Snyder grew up in Silver Spring, about 25 minutes from Columbia and minutes from the Washington, D.C., border. He grew up adoring the team, particularly the Joe Gibbs era. Snyder and I have talked about this—the strangeness of how a football team, a game, can have so much significance in your life.

AP Photo
Dan Snyder walks off FedEx Field with his team.

Snyder grew up a Marylander with those same Marylander insecurities, and I believe he uses the nickname issue as a rallying cry to solidify his football base. To Snyder, critics are not attacking a name. They are attacking all of us…Maryland and D.C. folks who love this team.

I can't say I speak for all Marylanders, of course. Some will say this notion is insane. Yet I can say that every Marylander I know has a deep and personal connection to the team.

The irony is that a significant number of fans are African-American. If there is any group that should be sensitive to a slur, it is us. Yet it seems many black fans support the name.

In my family, I was raised aware of my roots and history. My family's Maryland ties go back to the 1600s and an Irish woman named Eleanor Butler (her nickname was Irish Nell), who came to America as an indentured servant to Charles Calvert, or Lord Baltimore. Calvert preached religious tolerance, and Butler would eventually fall in love with a slave, marry him and produce a family.

My D.C. roots trace back to a woman named Elizabeth Proctor Thomas, my mom's great, great aunt, a free woman and civil rights activist who once met Abraham Lincoln.

So I'm related to an Irish freedom fighter from Maryland and a black activist from D.C., was always socially aware of race, studied my history extensively, yet was totally ambivalent regarding a questionable nickname for my favorite football team.

I was part of a racially conscious family in a racially tolerant community with racially diverse friends and family, yet we never discussed that Redskin is a Webster-defined racial slur. None of my black friends and I did either. Ever. That is the power of growing up a Washington football team fan in Maryland.

Why so powerful? Thinking seriously about the nickname ruined our football utopia. It was our insecurities at work. It's a racist, flawed nickname, but it's our racist, flawed nickname, even though we were all being extremely hypocritical. We ignored the Redskin slur.

If after purchasing the team, Snyder renamed them the Washington N-----s, we wouldn't have stood for it. There'd be a million blacks marching on Washington, and we would've been among them.

"I think what a lot of people [American Indians] that oppose the nickname see with Snyder is that so much of him is wrapped up in that team," said Joel Barkin, a spokesman for the Oneida Nation, which opposes the Redskins nickname. "In many ways it defines who he is. To him, giving it up means giving up a piece of himself. That's how we see it.

"With Snyder, that brand, even though the name is racist, that brand means everything to him. I think Snyder feels, 'This team meant something to me as a child. My connection to this team is worth more than you, an American Indian, being offended.'"

To Snyder and the NFL, the nickname isn't racist. It is a point of pride. Particularly to someone like Snyder. Remember those Maryland roots. He watched his heroes like Joe Gibbs and Joe Theismann and Doug Williams and Art Monk and John Riggins all wear that helmet with pride.

Preserving the history of the team is paramount. If it offends a significant number of people, so be it. If Snyder has to pay a bunch of suits to take PR bullets for him, so be it.

"The name is the past," Washington Post columnist Mike Wise told Bleacher Report. "It's the one thing that diehard fans have bonded with him over. ... That's all Dan can effectively sell to keep the windfall coming in: the past. Keep the name. Keep Sonny [Jurgensen] employed in the booth. Bring Riggo back to the owner's box.

"Sometimes I don't think he owns a football team as much as he owns a museum."

The NFL, like Snyder, also says the word isn't a slur. "The name of that organization is not and never has been intended to be used as a slur and is currently not one as well," said Adolpho Birch, the NFL senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs.

However, according to The Associated Press, when activist Susan Shown Harjo filed a lawsuit seeking to remove the "Redskins" trademark from the team, the National Congress of American Indians filed a supporting brief which stated in part: "The 'Redskins' trademark is disparaging to Native Americans and perpetuates a centuries-old stereotype of Native Americans as 'blood-thirsty savages,' 'noble warriors' and an ethnic group 'frozen in history.'"

Recently, 50 U.S. Senators sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging the league to change the nickname. Washington general manager Bruce Allen responded to the Senators with a letter of his own, saying, "The Redskins team name continues to carry a deep and purposeful meaning."

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Roger Goodell at his Super Bowl press conference.

At his Super Bowl press conference last year, Goodell showed what would be the beginning of a steady backing of Snyder and support for the nickname.

"Growing up in Washington, I do understand the affinity for that name with the fans," Goodell said. "I also understand the other side of that. I don't think anybody wants to offend anybody. But this has been discussed over a long period of time. I think Dan Snyder and the organization have made it very clear that they are proud of that name and that heritage, and I think the fans are, too."

Washington and NFL officials, over the past few years, have launched an organized defense of the name. They cite polls that show overwhelming support for the nickname and back American Indian proponents who do not find it offensive.

"Obviously, you have not read some of the history of the Redskins and the name of the team and what it means," Snyder once said. "What's most important is that what the Redskins are all about is the tradition of the Redskins, fighting for old D.C., victory. The terminology of the Redskins is not meant to be offensive."

In his recent letter to Senator Harry Reid, Allen cited a seven-month study from the Smithsonian that says the origin of the word was benign. He also said the current logo was designed by Native American leaders. He also cited a 10-year-old poll by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center that found 90 percent of almost 800 Native Americans surveyed had no issue with the name.

Harjo told The Associated Press the poll was flawed because it failed to ask several crucial questions. "Are you a tribal person? What is your nation? What is your tribe? Would you say you are culturally or socially or politically native?" Harjo stated. "Those without such connections cannot represent native opinions."

Allen also has pointed to a 2014 AP poll that found 83 percent of Americans were in favor of keeping the team name.

AP Photo
Daniel Snyder and General Manager Bruce Allen.

At times, Snyder's efforts to boost the favorable impression of the nickname have been comical failures. The team in May started a #RedskinsPride hashtag campaign that completely backfired as social media users roundly mocked the campaign with some football fans on Twitter calling the nickname racist.

Opponents of the nickname have engaged in their own offensive that has gained momentum.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the team should lose its trademark for using the nickname.

Barkin said American Indian leaders point to three main issues with the use of the word.

First: Any notion the majority of native peoples support the use of the mascot isn't true, they say. There are several dozen American Indian organizations that have either issued statements or passed resolutions condemning the use of the name, including the Oneida, the Navajo Nation Council and Cherokee and Comanche Nations of Oklahoma.

Second: Snyder's hiring of former Virginia Sen. George Allen, son of the former Washington coach, as part of his advisory group on the nickname issue, has infuriated American Indian leaders. Allen had to famously suspend a reelection campaign for using the racially insensitive term "macaca" when referring a campaign volunteer of Indian descent.

"They hired a guy who used a racial slur," said Barkin, "to defend a team that uses a racial slur. Think about that."

Third: The nation's demographics are rapidly changing and could force Snyder and the NFL to abandon the nickname. American Indian leaders feel a younger generation will become more vocal in opposing the nickname and, using social media, will increasingly speak out against the name.

Barkin cites what happened in Cooperstown, New York, last March as proof. Middle and high school students voted to drop the Redskins nickname that had been used there since the 1920s.

The county where the high school is located is 95 percent white, census records show, and the American Indian population is just 0.2 percent. Barkin says it wasn't American Indians that made the change. It was a group of white students, Barkin states, who simply felt the name was derogatory.

Jacqueline Pata, the executive director of the National Congress, says the NFL "must stop promoting this slur and finally change the name."

***

I liked Snyder a great deal upon first getting to know him after he purchased the team in 1999, because he was a Maryland guy. He was one of us.

We got along well when we met and talked. I interviewed him several times in his office at the team's complex and spoke more than a few times on the phone. He was always smart and helpful. I likely interviewed Snyder dozens of times during the first few years of his tenure as owner.

Snyder to me, initially, was a brilliant owner, a new-wave owner in the mold of Jerry Jones, who would spend money on the team. My team. Almost everyone I knew in my old neighborhood who were fans felt the same way.

Then, I started to see things. Little things. When at the complex, I saw how he occasionally treated people around him—secretaries, assistant coaches—and began to hear stories from those coaches about how Snyder would scream at them over a play call.

Over the years, these stories began to proliferate in the media. At first, the stories were just a trickle. They'd eventually become a flood.

There was the overpaying of free agents that would become absolute busts. Snyder's teams have also made the playoffs just four times in the 15 years he's owned the club. During that time he went through seven head coaches, a staggering number.

There are good sides to Snyder, to be sure. He donates millions to charity, including $600,000 to victims of Hurricane Katrina. There can be a warm and generous heart inside of him.

But everything changed for me when my mother began tracing our roots and officially documented what was generally known in our family: that we had American Indian ancestry. That's when I began to rethink my support of the Redskin nickname.

There was no steady evolution. As a child, I rooted for the team and didn't care about the nickname. As a teen, the same. In my 20s, the same. After the DNA test, in my 30s, the change was sudden and transformational.

I was related to the people that were being caricatured. The moment was instructive in many ways. It showed, to me, the hypocrisy of a black man ignoring a slur his entire life because a football team meant so much to him.

It showed something else. I looked around at the diversity in my life, which was extensive, and noticed something: Long into my adulthood, there were few American Indians in my life. There was no one to express their displeasure.

And this is a key point in my change, and in the argument overall. Since the American Indian population is around 1 percent of the total in the U.S., it's safe to assume most of the people who have expressed their support of the nickname have never had a face-to-face discussion with someone of American Indian heritage who disagrees with it.

It's one thing to read in a newspaper the objections of American Indians, or see it on television. It is another to have someone voice his or her displeasure to your face.

Maybe the nickname did or didn't start as a slur, but at the very least, it evolved into one.

AP Photo
George Preston Marshall at his desk in 1935.

It was also clear an unrepentant bigot had founded the team I rooted for my entire childhood, something I was unaware of until my research began post-DNA test. George Preston Marshall was the last to integrate his team in the NFL and only did so after threats from the federal government. "We'll start signing Negroes," Marshall once famously said, "when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."

Why would a white supremacist owner use "Redskins" to honor Native Americans when he despised non-white races? This is a question none of the backers of the nickname has ever been able to answer satisfactorily.

There is another question. Would non-American Indian backers of the nickname call an American Indian a "Redskin" to that person's face? Goodell was asked that question at his Super Bowl press conference this past season. He declined to answer the question.

That non-answer said a great deal.

***

I think a part of me still likes Snyder. The Maryland connection is strong. There's also a good chance the team will be really good this season, and in the coming years, because the quarterback is so talented and the general manager knows what he's doing. I want to root for Snyder, but the nickname issue is like an anchor.

So how does this nickname problem end?

There is a good chance this fight goes on for years, as Snyder and the NFL continue to assert that the name isn't a slur, until they are forced to change that position by government edict or an overwhelming number of Americans speaking out against the name. Neither of those is on the immediate horizon.

Snyder will resist the change for the foreseeable future. He will continue to be stubborn.

Like a typical Marylander.

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