The Washington NFL team is scheduled to play in London this fall, and two members of the British Parliament aren’t happy about it.
“We were shocked to learn the derivation of the term ‘R*dskin,’ pertaining as it does to the historic abuse of Native Americans,” Ruth Smeeth and Ian Austin wrote in a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN. “The exportation of this racial slur to the UK this autumn, when the Washington team is due to play, directly contravenes the values that many in Britain have worked so hard to instill.”
The two members of the British Labor Party want the league to change the team’s name or, “at the minimum, send a different team to our country to represent the sport, one that does not promote a racial slur.”
Native American tribes have been trying to get Washington to change its name for years, but recently the movement has been gaining steam: In 2014, the U.S. Patent Office canceled Washington’s trademark of the name because it is “disparaging” to Native Americans; last year, California recently became the first state to ban all schools from using “Redskins” as a team mascot or name; and just last week, a congressman from New York sent Goodell a letter calling for a change. Even President Barack Obama has urged Washington to “think about changing the name.”
But Dan Snyder, the owner of the team, has been adamant about keeping the name. “We’ll never change the name,” he said in 2013. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
The league has stuck by Snyder, even financing the team’s legal battle to keep the trademark. “A team’s name is a club decision,” Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s vice president of communications, told ESPN.
While it seems unlikely that the British Parliament can make Goodell and Snyder do something that President Obama (let alone mere empathy) couldn’t, Smeeth and Austin might actually have the law on their side in England.
“No nation has stricter anti-racism laws in sports, due in part to disturbing incidents encountered by black soccer players over the years, including having banana peels and monkey chants hurled at them during matches,” Mike Weiss of ESPN reported. “Clubs at every level can be heavily fined or banished from their respective leagues for any violation.”
It’s also significant that Wembley Stadium, the site of the game in October, has its own anti-racism charter that bans “racial, homophobic or discriminatory abuse, chanting or harassment.” ESPN reports that people at Wembley are currently discussing the issue internally.
Also potentially problematic? The BBC — the NFL’s broadcasting partner in the United Kingdom — is publicly owned.
“Given it’s taxpayer-funded, if we believe it’s a racial slur, then that means problems for the BBC in terms of coverage of the event,” Smeeth said.
The NFL has played games in London annually since 2007, and has had three per season there since 2014. The league has been very open about its desire to open a NFL franchise in London — possibly as soon as 2022. Why? London is a huge market, and the NFL is not keen on leaving money on the table.
So for Goodell and Co., the most important part of Smeeth and Austin’s argument might just be: “This is not the image the NFL wants portrayed in the UK.”
“We’re quite clear that sport is a vehicle for cultural change and celebration of what’s best about society rather than hate and division,” Smeeth told ESPN. “That’s why bringing in new racial slurs to Britain is unacceptable. This is not the way we would want Native Americans introduced to our country.”
“It is heartening to see leading officials in Britain demonstrating their commitment to fighting for equality and opposing racism in U.S. sports, just as they have historically in the UK,” representatives of Change the Mascot, a campaign launched by the Oneida Indian Nation, said in a statement. “Perpetuating the slurring of people of color runs counter to American and British ideals of respect and tolerance.”