This morning, my colleague Travis Waldron published an important and exhaustive account of how the term “Redskins” turned into a slur and became deeply intertwined with the growth of football in America, and of the forty-year campaign to end the Washington, DC football team’s use of the name. It’s a fascinating history. And in the course of reporting it, we asked the team for comment.
What we got was more revealing than the team intended. Travis was copied on a series of emails between Tony Wyllie, the organization’s vice president of communications, and a group of men he’d consulted about Travis’s question. They included Republican messaging consultant Frank Luntz, former Virginia governor and Senator (and son of a former Redskins head coach) George Allen, and former George W. Bush administration White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Travis was asking basic questions about the origin story the team relies on to justify its use of the name–the organization says they chose “Redskins” to honor a coach who may not have been Native American at all–and the organization’s reaction to a pending trademark case and public criticism. In response, Bruce Allen, the team’s executive vice president and general manager, called those queries “ignorant.”
“The point was that the Redskins owner at the time obviously believed that Lone Star Dietz was a Native American and named the team to honor Native Americans and be motivated by their heritage,” Allen, whose 2006 Senate campaign was marked by allegations about his use of racially charged language, wrote. “All the other aspects of the story about Lone Star’s adoption and other intrigue and speculation is undoubtedly beyond our ability to discern as to its veracity.”
“We don’t need to comment on all of these ignorant requests,” Bruce Allen wrote in response. “Tell reporter to call the family of the College Hall Of Fame Coach Dietz and ask them this insulting question.”
“I agree,” Fleischer responded, “not [sic] need to answer any more questions or waste any more time with this outfit.”
These aren’t just questions that Travis has asked. They’re questions the National Congress of American Indians, the Morningstar Institute, and Oneida Indian Nation of New York want answered. They’re issues the President of the United States has raised in public. And they’re worthy of answers.
The dismissive tone isn’t all that matters here. It’s not as if it’s a revelation that the team doesn’t take the charges that its name is a slur seriously. Owner Dan Snyder is publicly contemptuous of any suggestion that he might change his team’s name, even if he loses trademark protection, and the profits that flow from it. Bruce Allen’s derision is consistent with his boss’s view of the issue.
But the men Wyllie and Bruce Allen reached out to for help, and for reinforcement, aren’t just general-interest media consultants or sports experts. They’re political figures, extraordinarily high-profile ones. And they’re men who have helped shape a sharply polarized environment that allows Snyder to cast himself as a victim of political correctness run amok, rather than a contrarian standing athwart a national consensus hollering that he’ll “NEVER” change his team’s name. Luntz, Fleischer, and George Allen, whose own struggles with racialized language are now political history, may be terrific people to consult if you want to win a bitterly divided election or policy fight. But their credentials don’t exactly suggest that they’re prepared to help a brand like Snyder’s team move into the future.
The organization’s official statements say that “We respect those who don’t agree.” But going to this particular group of men was a way for team officials to reassure themselves that they don’t have to take the charges seriously. The officials who work for Snyder could have shown that respect at any point simply by meeting with their critics. Snyder’s organization could have adopted Native American groups, which now have extensive experience in helping teams and schools navigate name changes, as partners in helping them plan for their strategic future–and in answering press inquiries like these. In responding to Travis’s request, the team’s officials might have consulted an independent historian to help them fact-check their history.
Instead, Wyllie and Bruce Allen sought to reinforce the narrative their organization is already committed to. Allen and his brother George are sons of a former head coach of the team, and deeply steeped in its traditions. And Luntz, who focus grouped the team’s name last summer, has every financial interest in flattering an organization that’s hired him once and might again. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which this group of advisers might have suggested that the team respond differently.
A team that was respectfully engaged with the possibility that its name was insulting, and that was willing to grapple with big practical questions that may be forced upon it, would be wise to reach out beyond an insular circle like the one that shows up on this email chain. It’s the team’s choice to huddle in a bunker instead, but engaging with consultants with a broader range of experiences and perspectives would have made for a more sophisticated response to the press and the organization’s critics, and would help the team begin a strategic planning process that the law and the National Football League may push on them anyway. Telling the team to dig in is just bad advice. But at least Wyllie told Travis that the organization wasn’t paying Fleischer, Luntz, and George Allen for it.