Sports

On MLK Day, NFL-Allied Civil Rights Group Calls For ‘Redskins’ Name Change

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The Fritz Pollard Alliance, a major civil rights group with close ties to the NFL, on Monday publicly announced its opposition to the name of the Washington Redskins.

The group made the announcement in a letter to its members and representatives, made up of minority head coaches and executives across the league, sent to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Washington Post reported.

“We have to take a stand. That name has to be changed. We can’t just leave it up to [the team]. We think it’s disrespectful. We think it’s, by definition, demeaning,” the letter read. “As the NFL continues to move in the direction of respect and dignity, one of its teams carrying this name cuts glaringly against the grain. It hurts the League and it hurts us all.”

According to the Post, the letter was co-signed by the group’s leaders, former Washington offensive lineman John Wooten and Hall of Fame New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson.

Leaders of the Change The Mascot campaign, an initiative started by the National Congress of American Indians and the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, said they “deeply appreciate” the letter from Fritz Pollard.

“By calling in such unequivocal terms for the NFL and the team to change the R-word mascot, the Fritz Pollard Alliance has chosen to stand boldly on the right side of history,” Oneida Represenative Ray Halbritter and NCAI Executive Director Jackie Pata said in a statement. “Our hope is that the league, Washington’s team, and its owner Dan Snyder will finally decide to do the right thing and make a long-overdue change that enables the NFL to move forward in a way that demonstrates a true commitment to upholding the American ideals of tolerance and mutual respect.”

Fritz Pollard’s stance aligns it with other civil rights groups that have taken public positions against the name; in addition to prominent Native American groups, the ACLU, NAACP, and the The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which counts more than 200 groups as part of its membership, have urged the team to change the name, as have religious leaders from the D.C. area and across the country.

But Fritz Pollard is more closely aligned with the NFL than any of those groups: named after the first black NFL head coach, it has worked alongside the league on diversity hiring initiatives and, before the 2014 season, on efforts to penalize players for using the n-word on the field.

Its stance against the name is perhaps the latest sign that the movement against the name is no longer one that exists solely outside the confines of the NFL, but inside its circles too. Former and current NFL players, including some who played for Washington, have spoken out against it, and before the 2014 season, all four of the leagues’ major broadcast partners changed policies to allow their on-air broadcasters to refrain from using the name (multiple, including CBS lead analyst Phil Simms, a former player, and NBC analyst Tony Dungy, a former player and coach, said they would avoid it, and mentions of the name on air declined during the 2014 season). Former NFL official Mike Carey, meanwhile, in August revealed that he asked not to work Washington games during the final years of his career because he opposed the name.

Given Fritz Pollard’s close ties to the NFL, it could hold even more influence inside a league where commissioner Roger Goodell has defended the name both publicly and in private meetings, and where other owners and executives have been mostly silent on the issue. Fritz Pollard has forced major changes in the NFL before. It spearheaded the movement to create the “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview minorities for open coaching and executive position, and it has continued monitoring the NFL’s minority hiring practices since.

Fritz Pollard leaders have already held meetings with NFL executives, including Goodell, on the issue, the Post reported. But Goodell and other NFL officials told Fritz Pollard leaders in the December 2013 meeting that it was an issue for the team, not the league, to handle. In August, Alliance leaders met with Washington owner Daniel Snyder, team president Bruce Allen, and Gary Edwards, the head of the charity foundation Snyder launched in March, but the meeting went nowhere. When Carson later approached Allen during a Washington game about the issue, the team president told them the issue was “no longer relevant, as it had become little more than a tool lawmakers used for political gain,” the Post reported.

Those responses appear similar in tone to those the league and team have given in other meetings about the issue. Early in 2014, Goodell and team officials, including Allen, met with Native American activists and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) in Washington to discuss opposition to the name. But the name’s opponents left that meeting, which was first reported by ThinkProgress in March, with the feeling that the NFL and team were not taking their position seriously. Allen also referred to questions about the name and the disputed history of it as “ignorant” in internal emails obtained by ThinkProgress last January. The team and its representatives have repeatedly responded to statements from political leaders and groups opposed to the name by saying that they are using the issue for political purposes and have bigger issues to worry about.

“We’ve had many conversations with the FPA about the name issue and are disappointed in their decision. We believe that they ignored the outstanding support we have received from Native Americans across this country for the Washington Redskins and the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation during their decision making process,” Tony Wyllie, the team’s spokesman, said in a statement to the Post.

But Fritz Pollard leaders said the NFL and team’s unwillingness to start serious internal discussions sparked the decision to take the group’s opposition public this week.