As calls to change the name of the Washington Redskins escalated in 2013, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and top officials from the Redskins organization, including general manager Bruce Allen, met in secret with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Native American leaders who support changing the name, two sources with knowledge of the meeting told ThinkProgress.
Such a meeting seems unusual for the Redskins. Suzan Shown Harjo, the Native American activist who has fought to change the name for decades, told ThinkProgress in January that the last (and only) owner to meet with opponents of the name was Edward Bennett Williams, who briefly acted as the organization’s managing partner in the 1970s. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has not met, to public knowledge, with opponents of the name since he purchased the team in 1999.
Cantwell, then the chairwoman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, organized the December meeting, which was held off Capitol Hill in part to avoid publicity and facilitate an open dialogue between the participants. Goodell and Redskins general manager Bruce Allen were present, according to the sources, as was former Virginia senator and governor George Allen, who has been paid by the team for consulting advice around the name and is the general manager’s brother. The meeting also included leaders from several top Native American groups, including National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
The meeting was intended as a listening session for a league and team that have insisted that they are willing to have an open dialogue with those opposed to the name, the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was supposed to remain private, said. But the sources said the league and team approached the meeting in a defensive stance that left the opponents who were present with the sense that the NFL and the Redskins hadn’t taken their concerns to heart. That, along with the public comments both the NFL and Redskins made in the months after that seemed to backtrack from Goodell’s earlier insistence that the league needed “to be listening,” may have contributed to Cantwell’s decision to take her fight against the name public.
Cantwell and her staff, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this story. Goodell and the NFL, through a spokesperson, also declined to comment.
“From time to time the Redskins have been invited to various meetings with elected officials in which the officials ask us to listen to their points of view,” Tony Wyllie, the Redskins senior vice president of communications, said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “Most officials — not all — support our name, but regardless of someone’s support or opposition, we are always pleased to let people know how strongly we believe the team’s name honors the heritage and tradition of Native Americans.”
Still, the meeting could be another sign of a shift in strategy for the team and NFL when it comes to defending the name. Both have acted publicly as if the escalation of the controversy in 2013 has done little to faze them, with Snyder insisting that the name he calls “a badge of honor” would “NEVER” be changed and Goodell defending it as a sign of “strength, courage, pride, and respect.” Behind the scenes, as ThinkProgress first reported in June, the team hired prominent Republican communications consultant Frank Luntz to conduct a focus group that included questions about the name. Luntz is now a member of the team of high-profile Washington consultants — which includes George Allen, whose use of a racial slur derailed his 2006 re-election campaign, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, and lobbyist and former White House adviser Lanny Davis — that the franchise only confirmed it was paying for advice on the name after ThinkProgress obtained emails showing their involvement in January.
If there is a shift in strategy, it has not coincided with a change in message, either at the meeting or afterward.
The sources said the defensive posture was evident from the Redskins and NFL’s decision to unexpectedly bring two Native Americans with them to defend the name. That contributed to the sense that the team and the league were more committed to defending the name than they were interested in listening to the actual points of contention, given that none of the name’s opponents have disputed the idea that there are indeed Native Americans who like the name and want it to stay.
The feeling that the Redskins and the NFL were not seriously considering their opponents’ concerns likely only strengthened in the months after the meeting, when Goodell and the team continued to defend the name with the same arguments Native American leaders have urged them to abandon. In September, Goodell said in a radio interview, “If one person is offended, we have to listen.”
But in January, nearly two months after the meeting, he addressed the issue at a pre-Super Bowl press conference by leaning on the fact that the team “has presented the name in a way that…has honored Native Americans,” a point NCAI, which represents a majority of Native American tribes, and other Native American groups dispute. Goodell also leaned on public opinion, including a 2004 poll showing support among a majority of Native Americans that the groups also say is irrelevant, for a variety of reasons, to their argument.
The Super Bowl comments seemed like a step back for Goodell, and less than two weeks later, on February 10, Cantwell partnered with Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), an opponent of the name and one of two registered Native Americans in Congress, to take her fight public. Cantwell and Cole released a letter to Goodell that challenged the name and threatened Congressional re-examination of the league’s tax-exempt status if the NFL continued to allow the Redskins to use it.
Cantwell, who left the Indian Affairs Committee in February as part of a broader reshuffling of Senate Democrats, said in an MSNBC interview just days after the letter’s release that Goodell’s Super Bowl comments contributed to her public action.
“We thought the NFL was listening and at least was going to listen about this issue,” Cantwell said in the interview. “But that press conference prior to the Super Bowl made it clear that they were going along with this perpetrated charade about this name.”
The Redskins launched their own public relations campaign in February by sending out a weekly release titled “Community Voices” that attempts to show support for the name among fans and Native Americans. That campaign features unverified statements of support from fans and Native Americans, but it too addresses few, if any, of the arguments raised by the name’s opponents.
“With all the important issues Congress has to deal with, such as a war in Afghanistan to deficits to health care, don’t they have more important issues to worry about than a football team’s name?” Wyllie, the Redskins’ spokesperson, said in response to the Cantwell-Cole letter, according to the Washington Post. “And given the fact that the name of Oklahoma means ‘Red People’ in Choctaw, this request is a little ironic.”
Goodell responded to Cantwell and Cole’s letter with a letter of his own, again defending the name as a sign of “strength, courage, pride, and respect,” the same line he used in response to members of Congress who petitioned him to change the name in 2013.
“For the team and its fans, the name has come to represent strength, courage, pride and respect,” Goodell wrote in the February 27 letter, obtained by The National Memo’s David Cay Johnston. “The Redskins broad and diverse fan base, which includes many Native Americans, is understandably proud of that heritage and has become highly attached to it. The same holds for the many middle and high schools across the country that embrace the name as part of their history, including teams located in Native American communities.”
The fight against the Redskins name has existed in some form for more than four decades, when NCAI and other groups first began to challenge its use and Native American activists started fighting other names and uses of their cultural imagery throughout American sports. The name nearly met its end in the 1990s when the Redskins initially lost a federal trademark lawsuit that was later overturned on appeal. The controversy around it was re-energized in 2013, though, thanks to symposiums against the name and a second federal trademark suit. A historical account that calls into question the Redskins’ purported reasons for adopting the name in 1933 only bolstered the cause, and a national campaign targeting the name kept the fight in the national media and helped spark public opposition from major civil rights groups and top political leaders, including President Obama.
That has contributed to a sense of inevitability around the idea of a name change among activists, who say they won’t stop fighting until there is no longer a professional football team named the Redskins. That feeling of inevitability may seem odd in Washington, where the Redskins have staved off decades of challenges to the name. But concerted efforts to change these types of names has found success at nearly every other level of American sports. In 1970, when activists first helped persuade the University of Oklahoma to stop using a Native American-based mascot at football games, there were more than 3,000 American schools and teams that used Native American names, mascots, or imagery. Today, the activists say, fewer than 1,000 remain.
Pictured: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Redskins general manager Bruce Allen, and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder (Adam Peck/ThinkProgress)