As National Football League owners gather for their annual meetings next week, an NFL sponsor that is raising an issue at least one owner wishes would go away will be holding an event at the same location. The Oneida Indian Nation, which recently launched an ad campaign calling on the NFL to change the name of the Washington Redskins, will hold a public conference about the name at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Washington, the same hotel that will host the NFL owners meeting Tuesday.
Ray Halbritter, a representative from the Oneida Indian Nation who has become a vocal leader against the name, will speak, as will D.C.’s delegate to Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-NE), the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. Kevin Gover, the director of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian, will also speak, as will the superintendent of and students from the Cooperstown (NY) Central School District, which recently voted to stop using “Redskins” as a mascot.
The Oneida tribe is an NFL sponsor, a release announcing the event. The New York tribe has a sponsorship with the Buffalo Bills, while the Wisconsin tribe is a major sponsor of the Green Bay Packers. Those deals could give the tribe leverage with the league — or at least more sympathetic ear from some owners.
After the tribe began its ad campaign, NFL commissioner took small steps back from his original defense of the name, saying two weeks ago that the league has to listen to the debate if the name offends just one person. And in Green Bay, where tribe members held a small protest outside Lambeau Field during Washington’s week two visit, Packers CEO Mark Murphy has criticized the name, calling it “very derogatory to some people.”
Holding a conference as NFL owners convene will only continue to put the issue in front of the NFL, especially if tribe leaders are able to meet or speak with NFL owners. More importantly, it puts Native American voices into the debate. Goodell, in his letter to members of Congress in June, cited (flawed) polling showing a lack of Native American opposition to the name, and columnists and others have suggested that the controversy is driven by white people who feel offended on behalf of Native Americans. The Oneida tribe’s involvement rebuts that for both owners and the media who will be in Washington to cover the meetings: a Native American group that finds the name offensive will be leading organized opposition and putting their voices into the issue and media reports about it. That could prove to Goodell and his bosses (the league’s 32 owners) that there are people who are offended and that the NFL should be listening to them.
That’s important, because it is owners who will force Snyder to bend if the name is going to change. Public opinion, at least according to the latest polls, is still firmly on Snyder’s side. And the federal trademark case that would almost certainly turn owners against Snyder should he lose — because of the NFL’s revenue sharing model, losing trademark protection on one name or logo would cost them all money — is still years from an ultimate conclusion. If opponents of the name don’t want to wait that long, they’re going to have to change the debate and put pressure on owners now. Some, like Murphy, seem ready to oppose it, and Goodell is at least beginning to shift. Snyder seems to sense that the winds are changing: he hired a veteran Republic messaging guru to hold a focus group where the name was discussed and polled season ticket holders with an email survey before this season. But if that shift is to continue, the owners have to keep feeling pressure and seeing opposition from Native Americans who think the name is offensive. Putting a public conference right underneath their noses at the NFL owners meeting may do just that.