The National Football League's team owners were in Washington Monday to hammer out some of the issues, big and small, facing their league.
Activists and speakers brought together by the Oneida Nation wanted to use the occasion to get a sympathetic hearing from the league on a cause of their own: the nettlesome, perennial issue of the Washington Redskins' team name and mascot.
They held a symposium at a hotel near where the owners were meeting and offered up an array of reasons for why they thought the name should be changed. Some panelists couched the name in the language of social justice. Others made pragmatic, bottom-line arguments for a name change. Some people cited psychological studies suggesting that racial slurs were emotionally damaging. And two students from Cooperstown Central High School in upstate New York who successfully lobbied their school to change its mascot — also the Redskins — were applauded for their efforts.
"This word is an insult that is mean, rude and impolite, and we would like you to stop using it just as children stop using something that is impolite," Kevin Gover, who runs the National Museum of the American Indian, said at the symposium. "The 1920s, when these names emerged in sport, were a low point in Native American history. Our people were confined to reservations and this was another way to assert dominance. It was a way to say: 'We own you and we can use your image how we choose.' "
Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist on the panel, told me that the team's name had to be considered in a broader context in which Native Americans face an array of mental health challenges. "The repeated and ongoing use of a racial slur against the objection of the person who is the target of that racial slur, is in any context — school, office ... considered harassment or bullying."
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the congressional delegate for the District of Columbia, also spoke at the symposium. She said that she was a third-generation D.C. resident, had been a Redskins fan all her life and had used the team's name "until [her] own consciousness was raised." She pointed to the team's troubled racial history — it was the last NFL team to integrate, and its then-owner did so only after the Kennedy administration threatened to bar it from using its federally owned stadium — and suggested that it would look worse for Dan Snyder, the team's owner, if he only changed the name if he were compelled to do so. (She also suggested that a name change would bring new revenue, since fans would have to buy fresh paraphernalia.)
But opponents of the team's name are climbing a pretty steep hill. The Redskins name is very profitable — the team is worth $1.7 billion, the third-most-valuable team in the NFL — and Snyder reiterated in May that he wasn't budging on the team's name. "We'll never change the name," he told USA Today back in May. "It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps."
And the name itself remains, if not popular, then at least widely tolerated. An Associated Press poll from May found that around 4 in 5 Americans don't think the team should change its name, and only about 11 percent said it should. If the needle has moved on public opinion, it hasn't moved enough to matter yet.
But critics of the mascot got a high-profile co-sign over the weekend from President Obama, who told the Associated Press that he would consider changing the name if he were the team's owner. "I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things," the president said. (Like clockwork, there was pushback: Lanny Davis, a Democratic strategist who also happens to work for the Redskins, went on Fox News and declared that "President Obama has better things to worry about.")
Outside the forum, a fan clad in the team's paraphernalia spoke to reporters. "I've decided [not to say the name] anymore," said the man, who told me that he instead referred to the team as the Burgundy and Gold, their traditional colors. "I haven't used the native imagery in public this year."
The Redskins name is usually embroidered in small print across the front of a jersey, a detail so small enough that most folks might overlook it. But the fan, who said he was a season-ticket holder and who declined to give his name, had gone so far as to cover it up with a patch that read "WASHINGTON" in all caps.
And he was holding a sign. It read:
Ready to Retire the name & Imagery
Please drop the Native theme Mr. Snyder.
It's not clear what, if anything, the NFL could do even if it wanted to. But late this afternoon, NFL.com's Ian Rapoport tweeted that Adolpho Birch, the league's vice president for labor policy, would meet with the legal counsel of the Oneida Nation about the possibility of changing the team's name — a sliver of hope, perhaps, for those who want it gone.
"We respect that people have differing views," Brian McCarthy, a spokesperson for the NFL, told the AP. "It is important that we listen to all perspectives."
UPDATE 10/10: Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Redskins, said in an open letter that he would not budge on the team's name.
I've listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name. But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too. ...
I respect the opinions of those who disagree. I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn. But we cannot ignore our 81 year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country. After 81 years, the team name "Redskins" continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.
We are Redskins Nation and we owe it to our fans and coaches and players, past and present, to preserve that heritage.