[Note: the R-word slur is only in direct quotations, so my personal choice not to use the word continues.]
The racist slur that adorns the Washington, D.C. football team continues to be an embarrassment for all sports fans, and resistance to the name is growing. But despite a lawsuit filed by Native Americans that challenges the trademark, and Congress’s introduction of a bill to cancel federal registration for all trademarks using the slur, owner Dan Snyder has doubled down, saying “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER. You can put that in capital letters.” In fact, the Republican strategist Frank Luntz has been brought on to find a way to put a positive spin on it.
In mid-May, ten members of the United States Congress, including leaders of the Native American Caucus, wrote a letter addressed to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and all NFL team owners asking that the D.C. team cease using the offensive name.
On June 5, Commissioner Goodell responded with a spectacular failure of a letter. He wrote: “In our view, a fair and thorough discussion of the issue must begin with an understanding of the roots of the Washington franchise and the Redskins name in particular … the name was changed … to honor the team’s then-head coach, William ‘Lone Star’ Dietz. Neither in intent nor use was the name ever meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group.”
Goodell’s analysis is a woefully inaccurate portrayal of the team’s history and omits many key facts. First, William Dietz was very likely not Native American and the idea of naming the team for his believed Native ancestry is a perfect example of a backhanded ‘compliment.’ Also of note was the total omission of the role of George Preston Marshall, the team’s first owner who chose the name. Marshall was an open segregationist and racist who didn’t draft a Black player until the team was threatened with being barred from its federally funded stadium. His will contained instructions that his money not go to “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.”
The commissioner’s letter goes on to defend the refusal to change the name, claiming that public opinion supports its use, and that it “stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.” It is the height of arrogance to tell an oppressed community how they should feel about a term applied to them, and what should or should not be acceptable. If that community declares that a name or a term is offensive – and Native American organizations have done so, repeatedly — it should not be used. Congresswoman Betty McCollum of Minnesota called out the ridiculousness of Goodell’s argument, saying “Would Roger Goodell and Dan Snyder actually travel to a Native American community and greet [someone with], ‘Hey, what’s up, redskin?’ I think not.”
If the National Football League wants to “take seriously its responsibility to exemplify the values of diversity and inclusion that make our nation great,” it could get a fantastic start by recognizing the racist history of the D.C. franchise’s name and ceasing to defend the indefensible. It should change the name and pledge to begin a real educational effort to explain why the change was the right decision for the team, the league and the country.
Patent Office cancels Washington’s disparaging trademark: The U.S. Patent Office ruled June 18, 2014, that the Washington Redskins nickname is “disparaging of Native Americans” and that the team’s federal trademarks for the name must be canceled.