Redskins, NFL Take Heat From Congress Over Team Name

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Washington owner Dan Snyder has vowed that the Redskins will not change their name. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Washington owner Dan Snyder has vowed that the Redskins will not change their name. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

On May 13, 10 members of Congress sent letters to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and to Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, imploring the franchise to change its name. In their letter to Snyder, the group stated, “Native Americans throughout the country consider the ‘R-word’ a racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word’ among African Americans.”

Last week in his response Goodell defended the Washington franchise, writing, “the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”

Snyder, however, has remained silent. On Thursday, in a guest column for Grantland, Dave Zirin penned an open letter to the owner calling on him to change the franchise’s name. Zirin joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: At the end of your letter you invite team owner Dan Snyder to take a road trip with you. Tell us what you have in mind.

DZ: So my suggestion is, Dan Snyder, leave the gated community in which you live and leave a region here in the D.C. area which is just 0.6 percent Native Americans, and let’s go to Pine Ridge, one of the largest reservations in the United States in South Dakota amongst the Badlands and Black Hills and wear your Redskins Starter jacket, wear your Redskins belt buckle, wear your Redskins Underoos, and sing “Hail to the Redskins,” and see if people take offense. And maybe, just maybe, that will shake him out of this idea that says, "It’s not offensive because I say it’s not offensive and because some of my best friends are Native American, and they don’t think it’s offensive either."

BL: So has the trip been scheduled? I’m sure the invitation has been accepted. When are you guys going?

[sidebar title="Redskins Debate" width="630" align="right"]In March, Bill Littlefield spoke with Sports On Earth writer Patrick Hruby about a legal challenge to the Redskins' trademark.[/sidebar]DZ: Actually in about three hours. We’re gassing up the car. [laughs] No, I have not heard back from anybody in the Washington football organization, which is honestly not surprising because it says so much to me that they won’t even step out and defend the name of their franchise in any environment that’s anything other than friendly.

BL: Team owners and commissioners of professional sports leagues are often accused of having tin ears. But can you think of another example quite this dramatic regarding Commissioner Goodell?

DZ: I really cannot because if you saw Roger Goodell’s letter that he sent to Congress in response, he said that the team name was never meant to disparage anybody and that the team name was a unifying force. Now that’s more than just a tin ear. That to me sounds less like the Roger Goodell who often does a masterful job as commissioner of the NFL, and it actually sounds more like the Roger Goodell who sat in front of Congress and said there was no connection between playing football  and traumatic brain injury.

BL: Since the publication of your letter what has the response been?

DZ: I mean, frankly, overwhelming. One interesting part of the response has been overwhelming positive feedback from people who are Native American. And that’s so important because on the one hand I’ve had that experience in the last 24 hours, but in the last 24 hours I’ve also had the experience of tons of folks who aren’t Native American telling me about how every Native American person they’ve known, every poll they’ve seen, every article they’ve read, shows that they overwhelmingly support the name and see it as a term of honor.

BL: How do you see this situation playing out? Will the name be changed eventually?

DZ: Oh, I think the name will change in the next decade, and I think it will change because the Washington Redskins will be a victim of their own success. Now I think the reason the name has been able to last, particularly in the last 20 years, is that the team has been an afterthought. Yet that’s changed. Right now the biggest selling jersey in the NFL is their star rookie Robert Griffin III. But Griffin is so good, and I mean so good, that the team will be in the national eye, and the team will compete for Super Bowls if he’s healthy over the next decade. And that will impose a discussion on Roger Goodell and the National Football League in a way that, frankly, will make the issue hard for them to ignore, and I think will eventually lead to the name changing.

BL: A team called the Blackhawks is currently playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. A team called the Indians is currently trailing the Tigers in the American League Central division. Why focus on the Washington franchise in the National Football League right now?

DZ: I’m against all mascotting of Native Americans because I think it’s a function of dehumanization and a function of people in this country, particularly white people, not reckoning with the history of displacement and genocide that created this country. And without that displacement and genocide you wouldn’t have these team names. That’s why you don’t have teams like the "Cleveland Jews" or the "D.C. Darkies." But that being said, I focus on the Redskins because this is where I live. The old expression is, “You fight the battles at home.”

This segment aired on June 15, 2013.


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