With the Oneida Nation and other Native American groups promising not to let their campaign against the name of Washington’s football team cease with the end of the team’s season, the franchise is now touting a new poll showing widespread support for keeping the name Native American groups call a “dictionary-defined racial slur.”
Public Policy Polling released a survey Thursday showing that 71 percent of Americans do not want to change the name. 18 percent said they thought the name should be changed, while 11 percent said they weren’t sure. Washington sent a release Thursday night highlighting the fact that “regardless of race, gender, age, or political affiliation, not one subgroup supported changing the team’s name.”
“This poll, along with the poll taken among Native Americans by the Annenberg Institute, demonstrates continued, widespread and deep opposition to the Redskins changing our name,” the team said in the release, pointing also to a 10-year-old poll by the Annenberg Institute that purportedly showed that Native Americans support the name too. “The results of this poll are solidly in line with the message we have heard from fans and Native Americans for months – our name represents a tradition, passion and heritage that honors Native Americans. We respect the point of view of the small number of people who seek a name change, but it is important to recognize very few people agree with the case they are making.”
The Oneida Nation, which has led protests, run radio ads, and organized conferences against the name, immediately highlighted its own problems with the poll, pointing out that it makes no reference to the ongoing controversy around it and doesn’t make it clear that prominent Native American groups like it and the National Congress of American Indians believe the name is a racial slur. Still, the poll’s top-line number would seem bolster Washington’s case for keeping it.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. That nearly one-in-five Americans want to change the name is a significant number. Ask Americans if other iconic sporting brands should be changed — those like Packers, Yankees, Dodgers, and Cowboys that have been around for decades and are associated with championship-winning franchises — and it seems implausible that 18 percent would be in favor and that another 11 percent wouldn’t be sure. The support is also lower than a previous Associated Press poll that showed 79 percent of Americans in favor of keeping the name, so it’s possible a full season of awareness about the name has increased opposition to it.
It also doesn’t address the major claim Oneida and other Native American groups are making against the name. Does it really matter that a majority of Americans don’t consider the name offensive? Given our country’s history, is public opinion really the way we want to settle questions of offense or injustice on racial and ethnic grounds? The vast majority of those polled aren’t a part of the group being identified — or, as the franchise puts it, “honored” — by the name. To them, “Redskins” has always been a football team, not a racial slur. Eni Faleomavaega, American Samoa’s delegate to Congress, made that point in July, calling the name a “moral issue,” “not a popularity contest.”
The franchise would counter such an argument by citing the Annenberg poll showing that a majority of Native Americans don’t find the name problematic, but it has its own flaws: it was conducted 10 years ago and relies on self-identified Native Americans.
And even if polling on the issue should matter, the NFL and Washington never make it clear exactly how many people have to find the name offensive for it to qualify as such.
None of that means the poll should be totally discounted, because it matters even if the issue shouldn’t be decided by what the public thinks. That Washington is touting the poll so aggressively is evidence that the name change debate — into which political leaders and media outlets have now waded — has gotten the attention of the franchise in ways past efforts to change it have not. That Washington keeps highlighting these polls, conducting focus groups, and petitioning season ticket holders shows that it is clearly concerned about the controversy and the public’s perception of it. With that said, as long as a clear majority of Americans support the name, it will remain a financial winner for the franchise and the league, giving them the only reason they need to avoid making a change they don’t want to make.
That’s not the way this debate should be solved, as Oneida noted in its statement regarding the poll. “Neither the Washington team nor its owner appears to understand that there is no poll or financial transaction that can solve a moral problem,” spokesman Joel Barkin said.
But that is the fundamental difference in the debate. While Native American groups and their allies see the name as a moral question about whether we should identify sports teams with racial monikers, Snyder and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell approach it in financial terms. So until the name starts costing them what they care about most, they’ll remain intransigent on the morality of the issue at hand. The good news is that, given the trademark suit, heightened awareness about the issue, and Oneida’s promises to continue its campaign against the name, that day is no longer impossible to imagine.