Awash in controversy over its refusal to even consider the fact that its name may offend some Native Americans, the Washington Redskins used an in-game timeout Monday night to honor the Navajo Code Talkers, the group of Native American men who used their rare language to develop a code and transmit communications for the American military during World War II.
The tribute was part of both the NFL’s Salute to Service month and Native American Heritage month.
It immediately sparked controversy on Twitter and other social media outlets, and with good reason. For any other team, honoring the Navajo Code Talkers would be taken at face value. For Washington and owner Dan Snyder, though, it’s nearly impossible to view it as anything but a cynical public relations stunt meant to help shield the team from criticism around its name, which has been the focus of an ongoing campaign from Native American groups who say it is racist and offensive and have asked both the franchise and the NFL to change it.
If there was any doubt about the public relations tilt of the tribute, MLB Network analyst and NBC Sports radio host Brian Kenny noticed that the team is also marketing a “Code Breaker” t-shirt for sale on its NFL Shop web site. “Quite the campaign,” Kenny remarked on Twitter.
Native American groups, including the Oneida Nation and National Congress of American Indians, have ramped up their efforts to change the name this season. Oneida has participated in protests outside other NFL stadiums where Washington has played and run radio ads on local stations during those games — it announced two more, in Detroit and Baltimore, that will air on Thanksgiving — as part of its Change the Mascot campaign. NCAI has pushed reports showing that racial stereotypes like “Redskins” have negative implications beyond just being a name. There’s also a lawsuit challenging the name’s trademark protections in federal court.
This isn’t the first time that Washington and Snyder have used Native Americans to defend the name. Last year, the team hosted a supposed Native chief on its television show. Deadspin later found that the man who played the role was not a chief and possibly wasn’t even a Native American.
Using the Navajo Code Talkers, though, is an even bigger deal. These are men who played an integral role in American military operations during World War II. Their accomplishments deserve actual honor, not a place in a half-baked PR campaign to defend a football team’s name from scrutiny. Perhaps that was indeed Snyder’s intention. And perhaps any claim to that end would be easier to take seriously if Snyder and his franchise would quit insisting that his team name “honors” people who find it offensive.