Reporting David Elfin
The controversy over the name of our area’s NFL team has been a hot topic this year.
Seemingly every Washington Post sports and metro columnist has weighed in on the topic in recent months. So have 10 members of Congress (more on them below) District Mayor Vincent Gray, the City Council, and the Smithsonian via the Museum of the American Indian (shouldn’t it really be called the Native American Museum?). It’s almost hard to believe that we haven’t heard from President Obama on whether the Redskins should change their name to something less offensive.
On June 5, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who spent the better part of his childhood in Washington, responded to a May 13 letter from those 10 members of Congress by writing that the Redskins’ name is “a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.” Goodell added that it “represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement,” and wasn’t “meant to denigrate Native Americans.”
A three-judge panel of the Patent and Trademark Board conducted a 90-minute hearing in March about whether the name was so disparaging to a significant number of Native Americans when it was trademarked from 1967-90 that it should lose federal trademark protection. A decision could take as long as a year and the Redskins would almost certainly appeal if they lose so the issue doesn’t figure to be laid to rest before 2014.
An Associated Press survey found that 79 percent of Americans don’t think the Redskins should change the name they’ve had for eight decades. While that’s a 10 percent drop in the 20 years since Suzann Harjo, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, first filed suit to have it changed, it’s still an overwhelming result.
Of course, almost everyone surveyed wasn’t a Native American.
More troubling was what my longtime friend, Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Paul Woody, learned when he queried tribal leaders in the Commonwealth, the place where the team trains and where most of its players, coaches and employees reside.
“About 98 percent of my tribe is [sic] Redskins fans and it doesn’t offend them,” Patawomeck tribe Chief Robert Green said.
Kevin Brown, chief of the Pamunkey tribe, echoed that sentiment when he told Woody, “I’m a Redskins fan and I don’t think there’s any intention for [the nickname] to be derogatory.”
G. Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahanock tribe, wasn’t supportive of Harjo’s cause either.
“There are so many more issues that are important for the tribe than to waste time on what a team is called,” Richardson said. “We’re more worried about our kids being educated, our people housed, elder care and the survival of our culture.”
Of course, despite the Post’s hand-wringing and the bluster of District government leaders, the fact remains that the Redskins are a private company based in Virginia which plays its games in Maryland. The name says Washington, but the ties with the city were cut after the final game at RFK Stadium on Dec. 22, 1996. The lease in Landover runs for another 15 seasons, blunting any talk of the Redskins moving back to the District any time soon.
Ultimately, unless fans stop supporting the Redskins, the only voice that matters is that of franchise owner Dan Snyder, who recently told USA Today, “As a lifelong Redskins fan, I think that the Redskins’ fans understand the great tradition. We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
As someone who grew up rooting for the Redskins, has covered them for more than two decades and has written five books about them, I understand all about the team’s tradition. On the other hand, the name’s obviously racist connotations bother me although thankfully Washingtonians don’t do the tomahawk chop, had a mascot doing a supposed war dance or have a grinning logo.
What really surprises me in all of this hullabaloo is that Snyder, who’s brilliant at marketing — which is how he made the money to afford to buy the franchise and the stadium for $800 million from the estate of the late Jack Kent Cooke in 1999 — doesn’t see changing the name as a golden opportunity.
Not only would the oft-criticized and lampooned Snyder look like a good guy for a change, he could make a boatload of bucks by selling jerseys, hats, T-shirts and the like emblazoned with the new name, which could even be chosen in a fan contest.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m all about tradition and history, but Snyder’s intransigence on this subject just doesn’t make sense to me. Or to his bottom line.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.