Asked at a pre-Super Bowl news conference whether he would call Native Americans “Redskins” to their faces, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell refused to answer and reiterated the league’s position that the team “has presented the name in a way that…has honored Native Americans.”
Goodell went on to cite public opinion polls showing broad support for the name of the Washington Redskins and reminded his audience that it is merely “the name of a football team.”
“Let me remind you, this is the name of a football team, a football team that’s had that name for 80 years and has presented the name in a way that is honored — that has honored Native Americans,” Goodell said in response to a question from USA Today’s Jim Corbett. “We recognize that there are some that don’t agree with the name, and we have listened and respected that. But if you look at the numbers, including in the Native American communities. In a Native American community poll nine out of 10 supported the name and eight out of 10 in the general population would not like us to change the name, so we’re listening and being respectful for those who disagree but let’s not forget this is the name of a football team.”
Goodell, like Washington owner Daniel Snyder has before, did not say whether he would or would not call a Native American a “redskin.”
“I’ve been spending the last year talking to many of the leaders in the Native American communities,” Goodell said. “We are listening. We are trying to make sure we understand the issues.”
Native Americans who oppose the name have challenged it for decades, but the campaign against the name took off in 2013 for various reasons (read our history of the movement against the name and how it advanced in 2013). Goodell may say the league is listening, but many of those leaders directly contradict the claims the commissioner used to support it. Native Americans say the name does not honor them but instead is an offensive “dictionary-defined slur.” And instead of arguing that it is merely a the name of a football team, Native American activists and leaders cite research showing that the stereotypes it helps create perpetuate many of the long-standing psychological and sociological problems that plague the Native American community. Politicians who have challenged the name say the stereotypes it creates make working on larger Native American issues harder.
As for the public opinion polls Goodell cites, the one that shows Native American support for the name is 10 years old. Two opinion polls conducted around the 2013 season show declining support for the name. An Associated Press poll from before the season found that 79 percent of Americans supported the name versus just 11 percent who thought it should change. A Public Policy Polling survey released in January found that support was down to 71 percent, against 18 percent who said it should change.
Citing polls, however, assumes that this is an issue that should be decided by the public, and Native American leaders like the Oneida Indian Nation’s Ray Halbritter say it should not.
“I don’t think this is an issue that you just vote away,” Halbritter told ThinkProgress. “How many people have to be offended for things to change? This is a defined offensive term.”
The NFL, at least, has met with Native Americans who oppose the name, though Goodell didn’t attend. Daniel Snyder, the team’s owner, has refused since he bought the team in 1999, just as most of the owners who came before him refused similar meetings. The team instead has solicited help from prominent communications consultants, as emails obtained by ThinkProgress this week showed that the team consulted Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, and former Republican senator and governor George Allen about how it should respond to questions about the name.
The team itself remains dismissive. When I asked submitted several questions based on concerns Native American leaders raised, Bruce Allen, the team’s general manager and executive vice president, referred to the questions as “ignorant requests.”
The Oneida Indian Nation responded to Goodell’s comments in an email statement:
“It is deeply troubling that with the Super Bowl happening on lands that once were home to Native Americans, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would suggest that the dictionary-defined R-word racial slur against Native Americans is somehow a sign of honor. Commissioner Goodell represents a $9-billion brand with global reach, yet insists that it is somehow no big deal that his league uses those vast resources to promote this slur. In the process, he conveniently ignores all the social science research showing that the NFL’s promotion of this offensive word has serious cultural and psychological effects on native peoples. Worse, he cites the heritage of the team’s name without mentioning that the name was actually given to the team by one of America’s most famous segregationists, George Preston Marshall. Mr. Goodell also seems unaware that the R-word is an epithet that was screamed at Native Americans as they were forced at gunpoint off their lands. The fact that Mr. Goodell doesn’t seem to know any of this — or is deliberately ignoring it — suggests that for all his claims to be listening, he apparently isn’t listening at all.”