"The Epic Battle To Save The Most Offensive Team Name In Professional Sports"
It was a simple declaration. With it, the owner of the Washington Redskins probably thought he was putting to bed the idea that his franchise might ever go by another name.
“We will never change the name of the team,” Daniel Snyder said in May.
“We’ll never change the name,” he reiterated when the reporter followed-up. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
But for all of Snyder’s public bluster on the subject, the tenor of the organization’s private response would shift in the months to come. Inspired in part by Snyder’s own comments, a small but powerful Native American tribe would join the long fight other Native American activists and advocacy groups had waged to change the franchise’s name. And in response, the Redskins would enlist a group of high-profile Republican strategists and officials to privately shape the organization’s response to public pressure as Snyder sought to preserve the name the team has used for 80 years.
For forty years, a loose coalition of Native American tribal and organizational leaders had targeted the title of Snyder’s football team. For the past two decades, they had waged legal fights that sought to undermine the team’s federal trademark protection, arguing that laws prohibiting the trademarking of offensive racial terms should void the one that covered “Redskins.” Snyder, like the owners who came before him, had no inclination towards a change. Especially not last spring, with his team coming off one of its most successful seasons during his tenure as owner and — despite questions about his star quarterback’s shredded knee — with the franchise’s future looking bright.
But the country was changing around him. Thanks to the persistence of those activists, names like “Redskins” had slowly begun to vanish. In March, a group of high school students had successfully lobbied their school board to quit using what Native Americans called a “dictionary-defined slur” to refer to their athletic teams. Two months before Snyder’s declaration, in his own own backyard, politicians had introduced federal legislation to make trademarking the name of his team illegal. The federal trademark board had heard a second lawsuit challenging Snyder’s team name, and if the plaintiffs prevailed, it would leave him with little choice but to find a new moniker.
The 2013 football season, supposed to be a triumphant one, would turn disastrous on the field. Things would be even worse off the gridiron. By the middle of the season, the President of the United States would all but urge Snyder to reconsider the name of his football team.
And the simple statement meant to end the discussion instead helped ignite a major controversy that enveloped Snyder and his team.
“The stonewall by the NFL and the Washington team was shattered this year,” Ray Halbritter, a representative from the Oneida Indian Nation, which conducted a wide-ranging campaign against the team’s name throughout the 2013 season, said. “It’s a permanent movement now.”
And it’s a movement with increasing chances of success. But even as changes close in on the Redskins, emails between team advisers, obtained by ThinkProgress, reveal a deep contempt for the arguments that may ultimately cost the franchise its name.
Kill The Indian, Save The Man
The etymology of the word “Redskin” is, according to a study from Smithsonian Institution Native American language historian Ives Goddard, “entirely benign.” Native Americans, Goddard found, were the originators of the term, which they used to set themselves apart from people new to their land. By the early 1860s, however, whites had co-opted the term as a racial descriptor at best and, at worst, as a slur. A newspaper in Winona, Minnesota used the word as part of a bounty notice published in its evening edition on September 24, 1863. The notice, provided by the National Congress of American Indians, which claims it has been independently verified, read:
THE State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.
CREDIT: National Congress of American Indians
Sixteen years later, a United States Army Captain named Richard Henry Pratt founded Carlisle Indian School, one of the first in a wave of Indian boarding schools meant to help the U.S. government solve its “Indian problem.” Many whites at the time believed that the only way to deal with Indians was to educate and assimilate them into Euro-centric American culture. Indians could be “saved,” but only if whites eradicated their cultural backgrounds. Carlisle, in the words of its founder, existed to “Kill the Indian…and save the man.”
Carlisle sat on an abandoned military base and existed under the authority of the United States Army. The school found little success in educating Indians. But it excelled in replacing Indian traditions and beliefs with the English language, Western religion, and American culture. This was especially true on the football field, where Carlisle ascended to the top of America’s new burgeoning obsession: collegiate football.
Carlisle regularly competed with–and beat–the powers of the day, Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale, and military academies like Army. Though they were officially known as the Red Men or Indians, newspaper reports referred to its players by another name. “Every time the reports of Indian games are printed, hundreds of Chicagoans are heard to express ‘Oh, how I would like to see those redskins play,'” a Chicago reporter wrote of the team in 1898.
By the second decade of the 20th century, Carlisle had spawned numerous other Indian boarding schools, which decades later would fall under criticism for their curriculums and cultural assimilation programs. Some who attended such schools remembered them as repressive institutions that destroyed their culture and provided little in the way of actual education. Carlisle closed in 1918. Fourteen years later, the team that is known today as the Washington Redskins played its first professional football game. The Boston Braves, as they were known then, adopted the “Redskins” name after just one season. As legend holds, the team changed names to honor its second coach, a burly Indian man named William “Lone Star” Dietz. The team moved to Washington in 1937. It has called the nation’s capital home ever since.
Dietz, in the organization’s version of the story, was a Sioux, and the team adopted its name “out of respect for Native American heritage and tradition.” The Redskins have used the story to defend the name for decades; it plays a central role in Snyder’s defense of the moniker now.
“Dietz’s true identity remains a bone of contention,” author and historian Linda M. Waggoner wrote in her exhaustive effort to debunk Dietz’s claims of Indian heritage in the spring of 2013. But his birth certificate stated that he was born to German parents in Wisconsin. It was only later that Dietz adopted the story of his Indian heritage. Waggoner’s research suggests that he did so for self-promotional reasons, first to help him sell his talents as an artist and later to help him gain prominence as both a football coach and a film creator.
Dietz gained entry into the Carlisle school, as an acquaintance put it, “thru some subterfuge” in 1907. Waggoner found that he was likely among the players illegally recruited to Carlisle for football purposes. At this point, Dietz “began crafting himself a fabulous autobiography,” Waggoner found, and he appears to have made up an “astoundingly anachronistic” Indian heritage that cribbed heavily from an Indian named James One Star, who had left Carlisle in the 1890s and, based on government records, likely died as a soldier. His “heritage” had gotten him into Carlisle, though, where he played and coached football alongside the famous Pop Warner, a non-Native who coached the school’s team. His time at Carlisle helped launch his coaching career — he went on to work at, among other places, Washington State and Purdue. In 1933, he joined the Redskins.
His tenure there was hardly outstanding. In Dietz’s two seasons as a coach, the team’s record stood at 11 wins, 11 losses, and two ties.
And Dietz’s story about his heritage was already in doubt before he joined the team. It actually caught up to him the year after Carlisle closed in 1918. A Washington state-based FBI agent investigated Dietz, and he was charged in 1919 for attempting to dodge the World War I draft by falsely registering as an Indian, and for misrepresenting a business he ran. He disputed the charges during a trial that ended with a hung jury. He pleaded no contest to new charges of lying about his heritage and misrepresenting his business and served 30 days in jail in 1920. Upon his release, he stuck to his story until the day he died.
The Redskins and the team’s owner, George Preston Marshall, may not have been aware of this backstory. Still, Waggoner found little evidence from the time to support the claim that Washington chose the name Redskins specifically to honor Dietz, though it changed names when it hired him, and before he coached his first season. Waggoner’s research instead claims that the name was possibly a ploy “to cash in on Indian football nostalgia,” a phenomenon Carlisle helped create. Home to football legends like Jim Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, Carlisle helped foster the belief that Native Americans had supernatural athletic talent, particularly on the football field.
Dietz died in 1964, three decades after his short stint with the Redskins and right around the time the movement against Native American imagery in sports began. In the early 1960s, groups of Native American activists and students began working with colleges and universities to change names and drop mascots, and by 1970, they had won their first prominent victory. That year, the University of Oklahoma banished Little Red, an unofficial Native American mascot, from Sooners football games. For the first time, an American sports team had listened to Native Americans who were arguing that it was inappropriate to make caricatures of their people for the entertainment of sports fans. Marquette University dropped its Native mascot in 1971 (it would take 23 years for it to change its “Warriors” nickname). Stanford University dropped its “Indians” nickname the next year. In 1974, Dartmouth College’s board of trustees decided the school should quit using its unofficial “Indians” nickname and imagery.
The Redskins could have been next.
Four Decades of Fighting
As Oklahoma banned Little Red, the Redskins underwent a transition of their own. Owner George Preston Marshall — who had finally wilted and integrated his team in 1962 amid federal pressure to do so — died in 1969. The Redskins were left in the hands of Washington-based attorney Edward Bennett Williams, who owned a minority stake in the team and became its managing partner. Native American activists who wanted the name changed thought the new leadership presented an opportunity.
Suzan Shown Harjo, a member of the Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee tribes who later led the National Congress of American Indians from 1984 to 1989, was one of those activists. Harjo said she “watched from the sidelines” as activists persuaded Oklahoma to change, but she followed them into the fight. She is today the most lasting and prominent voice against Native American mascots, “something of a godmother” to the cause, as the New York Times has described her. Harjo wasn’t present when Williams finally met with Native American leaders, but those who were told her that Williams had been personally cordial and receptive to their criticism.
But when Canadian media entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke became the team’s majority owner in 1974, its name was still the Redskins.
Cooke refused to meet with Native leaders. So did Daniel Snyder, the businessman who bought the team in 1999. According to Harjo, Williams remains the last team owner to meet face-to-face with those who want the name changed.
Over the two decades following the initial meeting, Harjo and other activists sought ways to target the name, both legally and in the court of public opinion. The activists considered various lawsuits challenging the names on civil rights grounds, but feared they would only end in crushing and expensive defeats.
They had little idea how to proceed. Then, in January 1992, the Redskins won the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXVI, played in Minneapolis, was the third, and last, championship the franchise won under Cooke’s stewardship. Local Native American groups held small protests against the name around the stadium. But the game is more notable because it sparked a thought in the mind of a Twin Cities-based patent lawyer named Steven Baird, who was working on a law review article and contacted Harjo for an interview. Harjo said Baird asked a simple question in the course of their talk: Why had she and her fellow activists rejected the idea of challenging the team’s federally-protected trademark? A 1946 law known as the Lanham Act, she learned during their conversation, contains an obscure provision that gives the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office the authority to deny trademark protections when the terms used may be disparaging.
“I said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,'” Harjo said. “It wasn’t that we rejected them. It was, you know, I’d never heard of [that argument].”
The strategy was promising enough for Harjo, the Morningstar Institute — which she founded to promote Native American culture and help rid sports of Native stereotypes — and other groups like NCAI to adopt. They went to work, recruiting Native Americans who found the name offensive enough to join a lawsuit against it. In September 1992, seven months after the Redskins won Super Bowl XXVI, Harjo and her co-plaintiffs, seven of them in all, petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trial and Appeals Board, asking it to invalidate the Redskins’ trademark.
The media took notice of their efforts. “People think that it is only this past year that there has been any momentum on this, but that’s not true,” Harjo said. “When we filed our lawsuit in 1992, there was a tremendous number of press people. It was amazing how many people were there. It was a big deal.”
Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser called for a name change, and others did too, giving the movement a new source of momentum. When the team responded months later, it dismissed the suit, alleging that it was without merit and that the appeals board should toss it aside.
In 1999, nearly seven years later, the trademark board agreed with the plaintiffs, finding that “Redskins” violated the Lanham Act and as such should lose its trademark, pending appeal. That same year, a young, wealthy businessman named Daniel Snyder bought the team, a move that instilled hope in the activists again. The combination of a legal defeat and new ownership, Harjo said, fostered the belief that the team might finally accept the change. Among the factors that made the activists optimistic was Snyder’s Judaism, which they thought might make him open to the concerns of another minority group.
It wasn’t so. Snyder, like Cooke before him, refused to consider a change. The franchise went about running out the clock on whatever momentum had arisen against it. The team continued to defend the name as a “tradition” and an “honor,” and throughout the fight it had another major motivation for preserving the name: money. The Redskins are a brand, one carefully crafted over 80 years and among the most recognizable in sports. Though there are disputes over how much changing the name would cost, the team argued as part of the trademark case that it would cause “every imaginable loss you can think of.” If the team didn’t have to rebrand, why would it willingly accept such an expensive undertaking?
Four years later, in 2003, a district court judge overturned the trademark board’s decision, agreeing with the Redskins that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their complaint. The office issued the trademark in 1967, 25 years before the seven plaintiffs filed their case. They hadn’t been offended for years before, the judge reasoned. Why were they offended now? The youngest plaintiff, an artist named Mateo Ramero, was just a year old when the original trademark was granted. To the court, it didn’t matter. For seven more years, the case wound its way through appeals. The Supreme Court refused to hear the plaintiffs’ appeal in 2009. The case was dead. The name Harjo spent decades fighting was not.
Harjo wasn’t going away. In between appeals, she recruited new plaintiffs to bring the same case. The new group, led by Amanda Blackhorse, was younger. Young enough, Harjo and the others hoped, to avoid what they thought was a trivial technicality that had derailed their previous victory.
If the trademark suit felt like a loss, it was actually one of few the community had suffered in the three decades since it started fighting the use of Native American imagery in sports. Students, parents, and Native Americans alike successfully argued for name changes in school districts and states across the country. A number of state boards of education have conducted a system-wide reviews of every Native American mascot in use in their schools. Miami University in Ohio, named after the Miami tribe, changed its name from Redskins to Redhawks in 1997. High schools across the country made similar changes, dumping “Redskins” and other names in favor of new monikers. In 2005, the NCAA passed a bylaw prohibiting schools from wearing any logo it deemed “hostile” or “abusive” toward Native Americans on uniforms during postseason play. Schools with such mascots wouldn’t be allowed to bring them to postseason games. As a result, the University of Illinois, with much consternation, dropped its iconic Chief Illiniwek mascot, who for years performed faux-Native dances at basketball and football games. Other schools followed.
In 1970, more than 3,000 high school, college, and professional sports teams had Native American nicknames or mascots. Today, fewer than 1,000 remain.
‘We don’t need to comment on all of these ignorant requests’
For most of the four decades that the fight had raged, the Redskins felt little need to respond to their critics. That’s changed dramatically. But that doesn’t mean that the team is taking the allegations about its name to heart. To the contrary, the Redskins’ position has hardened, both in Snyder’s public remarks, and in private discussions about how to respond to inquiries about the controversy.
Emails obtained by ThinkProgress reveal that the team consulted with a group of high-profile Republican advisers, some of whose involvement with the team has not been previously reported, about how to handle this reporter’s questions about the organization’s approach to the campaign to change the team’s name.
Included in the email chain were Frank Luntz, the Republican messaging consultant famous for phrases like “climate change” and “death tax”; Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary under George W. Bush from 2001 and 2003 and now runs a consulting firm called Ari Fleischer Sports Communications; George Allen, the former Virginia governor and U.S. senator who now runs the consulting firm George Allen Strategies; and Bruce Allen, George Allen’s brother and the organization’s general manager and executive vice president. Both Allens are the son of former Redskins head coach George Allen. The web sites for neither Fleischer nor Luntz’s firms include client lists. The Redskins’ vice president of communications, Tony Wyllie, confirmed that while Luntz had conducted a focus group on behalf of the team, he has not been paid for other work with the Redskins, and that Fleischer and George Allen’s firm do not have contracts with the team. Fleischer, Luntz, and George Allen had not responded to requests for confirmation at press time.
But the fact that the men participated in the email chain at all is revealing. Last summer, when ThinkProgress first reported Luntz’s involvement in the team’s efforts to focus group the name, the Redskins and Luntz declined to confirm that Luntz or his firm, Luntz Global, were involved in the project.
The email chain shows that after this reporter requested comment on a number of issues related to the Redskins name and claims made by its opponents, Wyllie forwarded the email to Luntz, Fleischer, and the Allens. George Allen’s response is the first included in the chain, and it suggests that the team reiterate its story about changing its name to honor Lone Star Dietz, even though the team can’t prove its claims.
“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.”
ThinkProgress’ inquiries included questions about the organization’s response to the idea that the campaign against its name was now “permanent” and to the fact that multiple Native American leaders and their allies had suggested that a name change was “inevitable.” The others dealt with the trademark lawsuit, the fact that civil rights groups, political leaders, and media figures had criticized the name, and whether the team was aware of the research questioning the veracity of Dietz’s Native American heritage.
The team’s official statement in response to those questions is strikingly different from the email chain.
“As a recent national poll showed, the overwhelming majority of Americans agree with our position on our name,” Wyllie wrote. “An earlier poll by the Annenberg Institute showed that 90 percent of Native Americans support our name and that’s the message we have heard from hundreds of Native Americans who wrote to Dan Snyder in support of the Redskins.”
The team’s statement included a quotation from a Native American Redskins fan in support of the team’s name that the franchise has circulated to many other media outlets as evidence of Native American support for the franchise’s name.
“We respect those who don’t agree,” the team’s statement concluded, “but we think the voices of many Native Americans who support the Redskins should be listened to as well.”
The team’s robust efforts to control the message trace back to the last spring. It was May 10 when USA Today sports reporter Erik Brady asked Snyder whether the name would ever change. Initially, Snyder stuck to the party line. Brady followed up, asking what would happen if the team lost the new trademark suit. Snyder went off script. He delivered the now infamous quote, telling Brady to print his answer — “NEVER” — in all capital letters.
“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
Months later, D.C. lobbyist, lawyer, and media consultant Lanny Davis, who Snyder had retained to help with communications strategy, said he regretted the tone of Snyder’s comment.
“Since I left the White House, I’ve helped him on several matters, so I know Dan Snyder. And when I saw the all caps comment, I thought that had the wrong flavor to it,” Davis said during an appearance on a local radio show. “I think saying ‘we care about people’s feelings, we’re respectful when anyone is offended, but we have this eighty-year name that we love. … We sing ‘Hail to the Redskins’ every Sunday at the stadium, and we say we’re part of ‘Redskins Nation.’ That’s our vocabulary. Those are terms of honor.’ And that’s what he should have said, but he, I don’t think, is going to say ‘all caps. Never’ again.”
Though the context of Snyder’s quote was in keeping with prior owners’ stances, the tone was different — and it mattered. Snyder’s retrenched intransigence made the Redskins’ name less an immutable fact of life and more an expression of his personal style. This was the same combative approach to critics he had taken before, the one that led him to sue both fans who said that the Great Recession had left them financially unable to meet their season ticket obligations and a local newspaper that criticized him. By stepping out from behind the organizational justifications, and the organizational tone, for the first time, Snyder made himself an easy target.
The Redskins have been trying to shift the conversation ever since.
In June, ThinkProgress reported that the communications firm owned by Republican communications guru Frank Luntz held a focus group for people in the Washington area about the Redskins name. In October, Snyder defended the team’s name in a letter to fans that followed the tone Davis had suggested. In November, the franchise asked its fans via email to contact their member of the D.C. city council and urge a vote against a resolution that would condemn the team’s name. Later that month, the team honored Navajo Code Talkers at halftime of a Monday Night Football game, a gesture that may have been genuine but came across as a desperate public relations ploy.
A New Version of an Old Fight
Snyder’s new tone in the spring was only part of the reason the team needed to reset the terms of the fight. The other was much larger. Snyder’s comment came at exactly the wrong time. A new movement to reinsert the issue of racially charged sports team names into the public consciousness had started in February and was beginning to coalesce around Snyder. And a small but powerful tribe was newly interested in joining the movement. Amid all of this, Snyder’s May comment acted as a spark to the opposition, particularly because the media had begun to pay attention again.
In February, a month after the Redskins lost in the playoffs, Harjo organized a symposium at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian. The event brought together activists to talk about Native American mascots in the Redskins’ backyard, and with little else to do at a slow time in the sporting calendar, the media showed up. Newspaper reporters, local television cameras, and web journalists all listened as Harjo and other activists described their new trademark case, which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would hear in March, and explained why they found names like “Redskins” troublesome. The event spawned a round of media coverage that reintroduced sports fans to an issue that, for the most part, had been out of the national news cycle for years. The timing was perfect.
A month later, as a small group of members of Congress prepared legislation that could strip the Redskins of their trademark, the school board in Cooperstown, New York voted to drop the “Redskins” name used by Cooperstown Central High School. The vote came at the request of students who no longer saw the name as appropriate. The board agreed, though it had a question: how was it going to afford new uniforms, signs, and everything else it would have to refit with whatever new name the school chose?
Enter one of the names now synonymous with the “Redskins” controversy. The Oneida Indian Nation of New York heard about Cooperstown and told the school board it would pay for the change. In March, the school board unanimously approved the change. Oneida donated $10,000 to pick up the tab. And there was more. Oneida didn’t plan to stop in Cooperstown. There was another, much more notable team using the same name in Washington, and Oneida leader Ray Halbritter wanted them to change, too.
Oneida is a relatively small tribe in New York, where its people lived before Europeans reached North America. Despite its size, Oneida is financially secure, thanks to the Turning Stone Casino and a network of gas stations it owns and operates in upstate New York. The tribe has attracted criticism over tax deals it struck with the New York state government, and Halbritter, the tribe’s public face, has attracted both vigorous support and equally energetic criticism. In a profile of the newest face taking on the Redskins, the Washington Post described Halbritter as a man loved by supporters for “pull[ing] his people out of poverty” — the casino helped bring jobs, hospitals, schools, and other basic needs to Oneida’s people — and “defending their image.” But the Post found that Halbritter’s adversaries, some of whom are members of the nation and others who oppose the tax, casino, and land deals he struck with the New York state government, criticize him “as an opportunist who has amassed a fortune at the expense of others.”
Both his proponents and detractors, the Post wrote, acknowledge “that he is a formidable adversary who has faced tough fights before,” and that is the persona Halbritter brought to Oneida’s campaign against the name of Washington’s football team.
Cooperstown is close to the Oneida tribe — in the Washington Post profile, Halbritter recounted a childhood memory of seeing tribe members burned alive in a trailer not far from the town — but the students’ movement against the name struck Halbritter and Oneida for another reason. There are virtually no Native Americans in Cooperstown. According to the Census Bureau, Otsego County, New York is nearly 95 percent white. Native Americans make up just 0.2 percent of the county’s population. Native Americans hadn’t forced this change. A group of white students who didn’t want to exclude another group of Americans had.
“They were kids and they did something these billionaire team owners and the nine-billion-dollar NFL won’t do. That was sort of a shining light moment, a moment of clarity,” Halbritter said. “That was very inspiring to us.”
NCAI and smaller Native American groups had fought this name for years, both behind the scenes and in public papers and reports. Oneida was familiar with the NFL — the New York tribe sponsors the Buffalo Bills, while its Wisconsin tribe sponsors the Green Bay Packers — and its members may have even been personally offended by the Redskins’ name. But the Oneida had never organized around it.
That was about to change. The symposium in Washington and the pending trademark case had re-energized the people who had worked to change these names for decades. The Cooperstown decision brought Oneida into the fold. And Oneida brought with it two things the other groups never seemed to have: an organizing strategy that would inject their cause into the mainstream and the money to fund a major advocacy campaign that no one could ignore. Oneida’s Change The Mascot campaign, launched in September, marked a shift in the way Native American activists would tell and sell their story to their opponents, the media, and the broader public.
Other events helped set the stage. The 10 members of Congress who introduced The Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act of 2013 in March wrote a letter to Snyder and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in May. Goodell responded in June with a letter largely based on the historical claims of “honor” and “tradition” the activists had long opposed. In July, Eni Faleomavaega, American Samoa’s delegate to Congress, blasted the name on the House floor, calling the racial implications a “moral issue” that its defenders had ignored.
And right as football season prepared for kickoff, Oneida’s campaign launch blew the issue through the roof. The arguments the Oneida made weren’t very different from the ones that had been presented before. Natives had used a broad, inclusive message. And they had argued that the mascots create and reinforce stereotypes with long-term consequences. They had even argued that this change was ultimately inevitable.
Oneida helped refine these messages and to craft broad media strategy that would take the arguments public in a way the movement previously hadn’t. Over the next six months, Oneida and its immediate allies — Harjo, NCAI, other Native American groups, and the original members of Congress — orchestrated a media-driven push that looked and acted like an insurgent political issue campaign. Oneida placed strategic ad buys in cities across the country where the Redskins were scheduled to play road games during the 2013 season. Taking the issue outside of Washington would get it away from a public predisposed to defend the team and into other communities, some of them, like Green Bay and Minneapolis, that were already familiar with Native American issues.
The ad buys weren’t solely aimed at the public, though. They were also a way to generate free coverage — earned media — that would beget more coverage. Oneida spent thousands of dollars on ads, but it knew that it couldn’t go toe-to-toe financially with the Redskins, much less the NFL and its $9 billion in revenues, its own dedicated TV network, and major media influence. Oneida, like any campaign, needed organic help. The ads would give sports and news writers a reason to talk about the campaign and the issues it raised. They would give reporters a reason to ask local political leaders and influential people about the issue. The ads would generate attention that led to more attention, stories that led to more stories.
In some instances, the campaign used a broad message of racial tolerance that tied Native Americans’ fight to those of other racial minorities, particularly when those fights were in the news. Oneida’s first ad, targeted for Week One of the NFL season, likened the Redskins name to the racial slur Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper used against a black security guard at a concert during the offseason. Cooper’s slur was in the news — the Eagles, his teammates and fellow players, the media, and even commissioner Roger Goodell condemned his actions.
Oneida praised the Goodell’s response, with Halbritter saying in the first ad that Goodell “is absolutely right; this kind of bigotry has no place in America.” Then it asked a question. If the NFL had to condemn Cooper’s form of bigotry, why did it sanction another? Halbritter used Goodell’s own words against him, and it worked: the ad generated coverage in mainstream outlets, and it was both educational and effective.
In other instances, the comprehensive media strategy went on display. A protest march accompanied the ad Oneida released in Minneapolis ahead of the Redskins’ Week 10 tilt with the Vikings. Children and adults alike carried signs throughout the streets around the Metrodome with messages like, “I am not a mascot,” a provocative image for the web and the next day’s paper. The ad and the march occurred in an area where Rep. Betty McCollum (D) had spoken out against the name — she was one of the 10 members behind the legislation targeting the trademark and the letter to Goodell and Snyder — and where tribal issues were well known. And the efforts inspired reporters to pose questions to other local leaders. At a press conference days before the game, a reporter asked Gov. Mark Dayton (D) to weigh in. “I believe the name should be changed,” he said.
While its campaign focused on a deliberate media strategy, the coalition never lost sight of its educational message. The franchise and its defenders often argued that “Redskins” was merely a name and that Native Americans had larger issues to worry about. Oneida and the other groups countered with research NCAI had pushed for years showing that these mascots perpetuated harmful stereotypes that had deep psychological and social effects on a community that deals with higher than average rates of poverty, under-education, alcoholism, depression, suicide, homelessness, and mental health issues.
McCollum, the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, argued that those stereotypes made it harder for her to do her job on the Interior Committee, which deals with Native American issues.
The name “makes it much easier in the back of your mind to disregard the health care, to disregard the housing,” McCollum says. “The same person you put down is the same person I’m going to be working for to make sure they have access to dialysis and diabetes prevention.”
Leaders like Robert Holden, NCAI’s deputy executive director, focused on the religious and cultural background to the issue.
“Look at the antics that were done in the stadium. (Fans) don fake eagle feathers and put fake war paint on. These are things that are part of our culture,” Holden told ThinkProgress. “Those eagle feathers, they’re a sacred item, shown by the creator to us how to treat them and how to respect this creature, what it does and how it sends our prayers to the creator. Some of these feathers are given to warriors and to people who do great things for our community. For these idiots to put these on and jump around like idiots, that’s like making fun of religion and our culture. It’s part of the education process, making them understand that what they did, what they have done and what they will continue to do is an affront to us.”
Halbritter framed his fight as one not over a name, but over Native Americans’ rights to define themselves.
“What is more important in life for anyone than their own belief in themselves?” Halbritter asked.
As the campaign progressed, it rapidly picked up allies. USA Today columnist Christine Brennan wrote in September that she’d no longer use the name. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer criticized the name, and the Post’s editorial board opined against it. President Obama said in October that he would consider a name change if he owned the team. NBC’s Bob Costas devoted a segment to the history of the name during halftime of a Sunday Night Football broadcast and concluded it was “a slur.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the team should change its name. The D.C. City Council unanimously approved a resolution condemning continued use of “Redskins.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid criticized it in December.
Along the way, the campaign’s broad appeal brought in other civil rights and religious groups too. The NAACP and ACLU, which had long opposed the name, were part of a coalition of 200 civil rights organizations that condemned the name in December. Members of D.C.’s black clergy pledged to preach against it to their congregations. 60 D.C. area religious leaders from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities signed a letter to Goodell calling for a name change.
To many of the people involved in the campaign, change seemed inevitable. The only question was whether Synder would embrace it himself.
“It’s going to change, but he can be a part of the change,” McCollum said of Snyder. “He has an opportunity to do that. He just needs to see the handwriting on the wall and be the change that should be.”
An End in Sight?
By all indications, Snyder has no interest in being a part of that change.
His organization, as it has in the past, continues to lean on public opinion polls to defend the name, citing a recent survey showing that 71 percent of Americans wanted to keep the name compared to 18 percent who wanted to change it (a previous poll by the Associated Press showed those numbers at 79 percent and 11 percent, respectively).
Oneida and other Native American groups counter by arguing that the name should not be subject to public opinion.
“I don’t think this is an issue that you just vote away,” Halbritter said. “How many people have to be offended for things to change? This is a defined offensive term.”
But their solution might not have to rely on public opinion.
A decision in the second trademark case is due any time. The Trademark Trial and Appeals Board heard arguments in the case in March 2013; in the previous case, the board issued its ruling just less than a year after it first heard the case. There are indications that the new plaintiffs could win. They won at this stage last time, of course. And the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently rejected a trademark for a product called “Redskins Hog Rinds” on grounds that it contained a derogatory term.
If Harjo is right and if the issues with the first case are fixed, the plaintiffs may be able to hold on throughout the appeals process too. If they do, the Redskins name will almost certainly have to change. Losing the trademark would prevent Snyder and the NFL from fully protecting the Redskins brand. It could cost the team a substantial sum of money, and those costs wouldn’t just hit Washington. The NFL splits merchandising revenue evenly among its 32 teams. Lose the trademark, and every team loses money. The NFL is content leaving the decision up to Snyder now. It’s hard to imagine it sitting idly by if his pride in the name starts costing the league not just public support, but revenue.
But there is something tragic about that fact that financial interests will, one way or the other, ultimately decide the fate of a name that so many Native Americans have fought so long to change.
“There’s no financial solution to a moral problem,” Halbritter said. “Just because you’re a billionaire doesn’t give you the right to use a racial slur.”