So here is Dan Snyder’s chance to be something more than an idiot football owner, more than the arrogant ass who stumbled into his first million at 20 and spent his last 15 years screwing up the Washington Redskins. By recognizing what is so flagrantly insensitive about the nickname and changing it, he suddenly might be seen differently — as a progressive thinker who prioritized human decency over whatever stubborn, stupid reason he has to keep “Redskins’’ in the sports and pop-culture vernacular. A new nickname instantly would become a hit in a country obsessed with being decent and correct.
But Snyder, petulant and misguided, would rather exacerbate an explosive issue and make it an ongoing brawl. Never mind that President Obama, 50 members of the U.S. Senate and numerous Native American groups have pummeled Snyder with pressure to eliminate what they consider a slur. Snyder continues to battle back, and even if he is not established as a bigot, he invariably will look like one as this controversy rises to new and uncomfortable levels. Whether he’s a power freak or a wounded animal clinging to this stance as a way of protesting a long trail of criticism, Snyder is about to become one of the most hated men in America.
He barely flinched this week when the federal government took its boldest shot yet via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which canceled the trademark for the Redskins name because it is “disparaging of Native Americans.’’ The ruling strips the franchise of trademark protection and corners Snyder like never before. From high-powered politicians to casual fans, most people are sick of this dispute and would like Snyder to right a wrong. But he continues to refuse and, disturbingly, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s other 31 owners are not pressing Snyder into a name change. This has devolved into a power struggle — the league’s billionaires refusing to budge amid increasing public outcry — and it’s another example of how Goodell kowtows to owners when he should be scolding Snyder and the rest for not enacting change. When it was apparent the NBA had a racist in its midst in Donald Sterling, commissioner Adam Silver and the owners immediately took steps to remove him as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. While Snyder hasn’t made racist comments like Sterling, his arrogance in vowing to keep the nickname — “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps,’’ he famously told USA Today — nonetheless paints him in a derogatory light that only will intensify as national momentum against him builds.
“We’ve seen this story before. And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo,’’ said Bob Raskopf, a Snyder lawyer, referencing a similar 1999 trademark ruling that later was overturned. “We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal.”
To bolster his pro-Redskins argument, Snyder says the nickname is a tribute to Native Americans. “Our use of `Redskins’ as the name of our football team for more than 80 years has always been respectful of and shown reverence toward the proud legacy and traditions of Native Americans,” team president Bruce Allen wrote in a recent letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been relentless in trying to purge the nickname. “The term `Redskins’ originated as a Native American expression of solidarity.’’ Stunningly, Snyder hired a major lobbying firm last month to combat the Congressional objections.
For Snyder to cling to this nickname because he’s a lifelong fan of the team — Goodell also grew up a Redskins fan — is a warped rationale. Race always must take precedence over arguments of history or tradition. As an owner whose team is worth at least $1.3 billion in the most recent Forbes valuation and probably more than twice that amount in a more realistic analysis, Snyder wouldn’t suffer financially from a nickname change. The Redskins share merchandising revenues with 30 of the other 31 NFL franchises — somehow, Jerry Jones has his own deal in Dallas — and I suspect t-shirts and hats bearing a new nickname would become all the rage. Other than his ego, which should be suppressed for such a matter, there is no reason why the nickname should remain the same.
Change it, Dan.
Be a good man, a decent American.
When I worked in Chicago, Native Americans protested the halftime dances of Chief Illiniwek during University of Illinois sports events. I also heard from Native Americans who weren’t offended and considered the Chief to be a positive reflection of their traditions and culture. As an Italian-American, I wouldn’t appreciate it if a sports team was nicknamed the Dagos or Wops. So it’s understandable why a Native American demands that the NFL’s longstanding Washington team not be called the Redskins here in the smarter, introspective 21st century. I know, as an Italian-American, that being described as a Dago or a Wop can be a highly offensive slur specifically intended to ridicule and disparage.
Just the same, uttering the nickname “Redskins” on a football Sunday, while something we should be intellectually above, doesn’t strike me as a slur meant to derogate the Native American community. Rather, it’s a piece of jargon/nomenclature we’ve carried over for too many decades — mindlessly, needlessly, foolishly — as a function of a dim-witted and unsophisticated sports society. Yes, the term Redskin has been used in the bigger world through time as a weapon, undeniably hurtful and contemptuous. But the way it is used today by a TV sportscaster — or by a member of the Dallas Cowboys, or by even the most Washington-loathful fan of the New York Giants or Philadelphia Eagles — isn’t targeted against an entire race. None of those people care enough about the issue to mean harm, which is sad in itself but the truth. Anyone who says “Redskins” really isn’t giving the term a second thought other than knowing it’s the team quarterbacked by Robert Griffin III, coached by newcomer Jay Gruden, supported by an overzealous fan base and represented in the past by notables of all shapes, sizes and races, including Joe Gibbs, Darrell Green, John Riggins, Sonny Jurgensen, Doug Williams, the beloved Hogs, Joe Theismann and a coach of debatably part-Sioux ancestry named Lone Star Dietz, in whose honor the Redskins were named in the 1930s by a brazenly racist owner named George Preston Marshall.
The issue is whether it’s time to give the nickname that second thought … and a third and a fourth thought … basically, significantly more attention than we have been giving it. The answer: Of course, it’s always time. We should continue to discuss the issue with great detail and depth, first and foremost to correct the horrific precedent established decades ago. Marshall marketed his franchise as racist in the segregated Confederate South. He supported the NFL’s original color barrier, and even long after the first black was allowed to play in the league in 1946, the Redskins didn’t break their own color line until 1962 — and only then after pressure from the John F. Kennedy administration. In a league that now demands and promotes diversity, it’s hypocritical if you’re not at least regularly addressing the topic.
But like anything else in a multi-billion-dollar kingdom, it isn’t as simple as swapping out Redskins for Monuments. First, not all Native Americans view the nickname as derogatory. Some see the pride of fans who wear the burgundy-and-gold Redskins jersey, belt out the “Hail to the Redskins” fight song, cheer the Washington Redskins Marching Band — and see it all as a tribute to their ancestors. Think about it: Why would a sports owner in 2013, even if he happened to be a revolting racist, want to devalue his franchise by ridiculing a group associated with his team nickname? According to Snyder, every survey commissioned by the franchise indicates an overwhelming sentiment not to change the name; indeed, an Associated Press-GfK poll showed that nearly four in five Americans don’t think a name change is necessary, with only 11 percent adamantly believing that “Redskins” should be dumped. One might argue that the objections of 11 percent — or just one person — is enough justification to change the name, particularly when we’ve seen a university such as Miami of Ohio take the correct path and change “Redskins” to “Redhawks.”
Not that Snyder is handling the issue with the proper sensitivity. Out of nowhere last year, as if wanting to bury a subject that a Washington Redskins owner should embrace and never allow to die, he said in his most definitive comments to date, “We will never change the name of the team. As a lifelong Redskins fan, I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.”
In case he wasn’t heard the first time, Snyder made his “use caps’’ remark. I will do the same, then.
THAT IS NOT GOING TO MAKE DISSENTERS GO AWAY, DAN. NOR SHOULD THEY, FOR ANY REASON, PARTICULARLY SELF-SERVING BUSINESS INTERESTS SUCH AS NICKNAME FAMILIARITY AND BRAND EQUITY, WHICH THEY DON’T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT.
It’s worth noting that the commissioner isn’t as firmly behind Snyder with his public statements as he once was. “I grew up in Washington,” said Goodell, who was raised in the District of Columbia before his teen years. “The Colts were my team early on, and then I became a Redskins fan. So I know the team name is part of their history and tradition, and that’s something that’s important to the Redskins fans. And I think what we have to do though is we have to listen. If one person’s offended, we have to listen. And ultimately, it is Dan’s decision. But it is something that I want all of us to go out and make sure we’re listening to our fans, listening to people who have a different view, and making sure that we continue to do what’s right to make sure that team represents the strong tradition that it has for so many years.”
When one of the hosts interviewing Goodell mentioned a decision by prominent football writer Peter King not to use “Redskins” on his Web site, the commish softened even more. “Well, you know, we’re always sensitive to what impacts the league in general, and that includes our 32 teams, and making sure that we’re doing what’s right here,” Goodell said. “And that’s why I think, again, we have to do everything that’s necessary to make sure that we’re representing the franchise in a positive way, and that rich history and tradition. And that if we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure that we’re doing the right things to try to address that.”
Spoken like a true politician? Well, it is a political issue. And the politics also involve media people who may or may not be purposely drawing attention to themselves with grandstanding views. I’m not accusing King of this; he’s too well thought-out. But I’ve seen others say or write, “I’m not using `Redskins’ anymore in my copy.” And I suspect they’re doing it more for eyeballs and traffic than out of any deep concern for Native American sensitivities.
How long have we been discussing this issue? Three years, five years, longer? If referring to this franchise as the Redskins angers even one person, much less hundreds of thousands, then a nickname change is justified. If not, then an ownership change will be justified.