After Sterling, attention turns to ‘Redskins’

Washington Redskins training camp. Keith Allison/Flickr
Washington Redskins training camp. Keith Allison/Flickr

It doesn’t look like the Redskins logo will be changed anytime soon despite National Basketball Commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to ban the owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team for life and possibly force him to sell off his team following his racist remarks against African Americans.

Professor Mark Mitten, director of that National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University in Wisconsin, said that while the National Football Commissioner “would have similar powers to act for the best interest of the NFL,” changing the name Redskins is more complicated.

Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s comments saturated the news and Internet immediately and created almost universal outrage. The name of the Redskins, on the other hand, has been an integral part of the Washington football team since 1933 and disdain for the name has been limited, Mitten said.

Also, he added, “Native Americans don’t have the clout that the African Americans do in the NBA.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has a rule that disparaging names cannot be used, and teams that do so can neither host nor participate in championship games, Mitten said. In recent years, the University of North Dakota dropped its Fighting Sioux name, and Miami of Ohio changed from Redskins to Redhawks.

Mitten believes it was easier to come out against Sterling than it will be against Snyder, because Sterling admitted to making the racial slur and there was concern that team members and fans would boycott games.

“Even though these were private remarks, the bottom line is, he did acknowledge making these remarks,” Mitten said.

Still, he expects Sterling to file a lawsuit against his punishment. A suit like that would be hard to win, Mitten said. The NBA commission was given the authority to act in the best interest of the sport by the individual teams.

If Sterling is forced to sell the team, he has a better chance of winning that lawsuit, Mitten said. Even if he doesn’t, Sterling may still sue in an attempt to hold onto his team as long as possible, possibly even after his death so that his heirs wouldn’t have to pay a huge capital gains tax.

Professor Chris Sagers at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law does not see how either team owner could win an antitrust suit.

“Forcing somebody to change a name because it’s unpopular, there is no conceivable way that violates the antitrust law,” said Sagers, who believes the NFL can force Snyder to change the Redskins name. “The league is like other joint ventures. They combine their forces and make a product that’s better.”

But there are still many people who find the Redskins name offensive. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) weighed in last week. In a speech made on the floor of the U.S. Senate April 30, Reid called on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to take action against Snyder.

“How long will the NFL continue to do nothing as one of its teams bears a name that inflicts so much pain on Native Americans? It is untoward of Daniel Snyder to try and hide behind ‘tradition’ in refusing to change the name of the team. Tradition? What tradition? A tradition of racism is all that name leaves in its wake,” Reid said.

The day before, the Oneida Indian Nation had praised the NBA for issuing its lifetime ban on Sterling and called on the NFL to follow suit.

Silver and other NBA owners “have taken a courageous stand against racism in professional sports, acknowledging that professional leagues cannot be a platform to promote bigotry. In taking such appropriate disciplinary action, the NBA has shown leagues like the NFL that they have a moral responsibility to take disciplinary action against people like Dan Snyder, who also continues to proudly promote bigotry with the use of a dictionary-defined racial slur as his team’s name,” said Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter.

Locally, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom-the National Synagogue in D.C., continues to be outspoken in his criticism of the team name, even having synagogue emails end with “Washington Football Team: Please pick a name we all can be proud to support. This synagogue is a ‘Redskins-Free Zone.’ ”

Herzfeld said he hoped that Silver’s strong punishment puts the Redskins “on notice,” adding, “Snyder has already been on notice” from so many. The name of the city’s football team “is not sensitive language and is hurtful language.”

“In America, we are seeing in our world around us an increasing sensitivity towards language that is bullying, harmful to other people. We are seeing less tolerance for that,” Herzfeld said.

While he is quick to say that the Redskins name is not on the same level as the racial slur uttered by Sterling, it still is “a very poor representation of what our city is all about.”

Meanwhile, Snyder continues to hold fast to his declaration that he will not change the team name. In a March 24 letter to “Everyone in our Washington Redskins Nation,” Snyder declared that the team name “captures the best of who we are and who we can be, by staying true to our history and honoring the deep and enduring values our name represents.”

In his four-page letter, Snyder said he traveled to 26 tribal reservations over four months and now believes the best thing he can do is help those who live in “Indian country,” where he noted the poverty rate is 29 percent on the reservations and there is “rampant diabetes, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, and heightened suicide rates.”

He therefore established his Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, which already has distributed more than 3,000 winter coats and donated a new backhoe.

The NFL itself has shown no desire to admonish Snyder. While a spokesman for the NFL did not return calls to Washington Jewish Week, Commissioner Goodell sent a letter to the U.S. Congress last year, noting that the name was chosen partly to honor then-coach William ‘Lone Star’ Dietz, and that the “Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context.”

Also, Goodell wrote in his letter, the name was approved in the D.C. Federal District Court, noting it was used “in a respectful manner.”

To read more about the Donald Sterling controversy, click here.

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