By Max Moline
Offensive, despicable, horrifying, racist, tradition – these are just a handful of the many words that have been used to describe the name of Washington, D.C.’s NFL team. In a debate that has raged for years and only recently begun to pick up speed, team owner Daniel Snyder remains firm in his position that he will not change the team’s name. With resistance coming from all angles, the issue has garnered national attention during the 2013-2014 NFL season.
When a Cooperstown, N.Y., high school changed its mascot from the “R-words” to the “Hawkeyes” in 2013, Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter presented a check for $10,000 to the school’s district for new uniforms. When asked why the talks about the D.C. team’s name have taken so long to heat up, Halbritter mentioned the Cooperstown name change, which resulted from a campaign led by the school’s students. “It breathed life into the idea of believing,” said Halbritter. “These young kids gave us hope that things could change.
“It’s not easy to have something changed, but it gave us hope that this young generation wants an inclusive society,” Halbritter continued. He mentioned the vast array of support the now-permanent movement has garnered. But it might not just be an issue of gaining supporters. “It might be as simple,” he said, “as when profit is no longer the most important thing to this team.”
As he suggested, Halbritter and the Oneida Indian Nation are far from the only advocates for a new team name. Richard Foltin, director of national and legislative affairs for the American Jewish Committee, recognizes that branding is important but, as he said, “there has to be a better way.” Furthermore, Foltin said, “Whatever the reasons why the name was adopted, clearly it’s time to recognize that the name … is a demeaning term, and clearly there’s a better way to name the organization than in a way that’s going to be offensive to any group of people.”
President Barack Obama is also among those who believe the time has come for a name change. Obama expressed his views on the matter in an October interview with The Associated Press. “Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it,” he said. “And I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.” He said that if he was in owner Daniel Snyder’s position “and I knew there was a name of my team, even if it had a storied history, that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
Many sports writers have come out against the name and some have decided never to print the team’s name again. Rick Reilly of ESPN, however, is not one of them. In a September opinion piece on ESPN.com, Reilly mentioned several Native Americans and schools that are mostly or fully populated with Native Americans who do not have an issue with the name, and some even retain it as their mascot. Reilly opined that changing the name because of external pressure could become a slippery slope, affecting teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Braves—and that it could even go as far as atheists logging their offense at the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the New Orleans Saints.
He ended his editorial by referencing a 2004 study that claimed 90 percent of the 1,000 Native Americans surveyed were not offended by the name. The final words of his column came with a warning: “Trust us. We know what’s best. We’ll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again. Kind of like a reservation.”
The study Reilly referenced was conducted by the Annenberg Policy Center. Snyder has also cited this study in response to the growing controversy; in October, he wrote a letter to the fans that was published in The Washington Post. In the letter, he quoted the study, and pointed out that four players and the head coach of the first Boston team to use the name that has remained with the franchise since then were Native American. “The name was never a label,” wrote Snyder. “It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor.”
And in a Nov. 25 Monday night game against the San Francisco 49ers, Washington honored four members of the Navajo Code Talkers Association during the first quarter.
Steve Rabinowitz, president of Rabinowitz Communications, a D.C.-based communications firm, analyzed the controversy from a public relations standpoint, saying that “They’ll eventually have to change it.” Despite the resistance from Snyder and co., he believes “it’s only a matter of time,” and that what is happening now is just the beginning. “All of these things build. Unless you see something bad coming, and you’re smart enough to nip it in the bud—all things like this are just going to get worse.”
He suggested that the biggest holdup in the process is money; he believes Snyder is worried about alienating the fans and losing merchandising opportunities. Rabinowitz also made note of the fact that if there were a team called “The Brooklyn Hebrews,” it would be a “disaster.” Appalled, Rabinowitz asked, “How the hell is that [name] possible in this day and age?”
What Halbritter and his fellow Native Americans want is “a small measure of respect.” Furthermore, “we’re thinking of our children,” he said, in reference partially to the suicide rate among Native American teens, which has skyrocketed up 65 percent in the last decade.
Halbritter said that people interested in helping should contact the team, Snyder and the league. “I think Jews in particular, as well as Native Americans, know what
it’s like to be screamed at in racial slurs and what that means,” he said. “This is a dictionary-defined slur.”
The United States Patent and Trademark Office recently rejected a trademark request for a snack food using the same name as the team, on the basis that it is “derogatory,” “disparaging,” and “offensive.”
“We all want to have this country unified,” said Halbritter. “Our people are not relics; are not mascots.
“Now is a time when people have a decision to make: which side of history will you stand on?”