Redskins name controversy heralds another season of discontent

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 23, 2014 12:23 PM

By Steve Ginsburg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Amanda Blackhorse decided one afternoon to attend a rally outside a game between the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs and the Washington Redskins.

Being a member of the Navajo nation, she felt it was her duty to protest the use of Native American monikers and logos by the football teams.

"Usually we get the hate messages in private," Blackhorse said, recalling her experience outside Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium. "This was just out in the open."

People in the crowd said "We won, you lost, so get over it" or "Go back to your reservation," according to Blackhorse.

That was 10 years ago and the Chiefs and Redskins names remain: decried as offensive by some, defended as a harmless part of sports tradition by others. In Washington, the debate over the Redskins name is particularly heated in this start to the new NFL season.

Some TV football analysts, including CBS's Phil Simms and Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy as of this week, say they will no longer use the term Redskins. On the other side, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, a Hall of Famer, said this week the issue is "so stupid it's appalling."

"I hope that owner keeps fighting for it and never changes it because the Redskins are part of an American football history, and it should never be anything but the Washington Redskins. That's the way it is," Ditka said.

On Friday, the Washington Post editorial board said it will stop using the word Redskins.

"While we wait for the NFL to catch up with public opinion and common decency we have decided not to use the slur ourselves except when it is essential for clarity or effect," the board said in an opinion piece.

The name will still be used in the rest of the paper, the board said, adding, "Unlike our colleagues who cover sports and other news, we on the editorial board have the luxury of writing about the world as we would like it to be."

The issue has even reached the White House, with President Barack Obama, a keen sports fan, saying last October that if he owned the team he would consider changing the name. Half of the U.S. Senate asked the NFL to endorse a name change.

In June, after a case brought by Blackhorse, a panel of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team's trademark registration because it considers the Redskins name and logo disparaging. The team appealed the decision in federal court.

There is no timetable for a ruling. If it loses, the team would have less ability to prevent sales of counterfeit Redskins merchandise.

"The 'R' word is defined in the dictionary as a racial slur," said Blackhorse, 32. "It has horrific origins."

"But this could be applied to the Chiefs. This could be applied to the Blackhawks (Chicago's National Hockey League team). To the Braves (Atlanta's Major League Baseball team). Native people are tired of being treated like cartoons, mascots."


The dispute over the Redskins name has rumbled since the 1960s but has been particularly bitter in the past year, prompting even those with long-time connections to the team to revisit what the name means.

Gary Clark, a four-time Pro Bowl receiver for the Redskins who retired in 1995, traveled to a Native American reservation in Montana last month to form his own opinion.

Clark said that as a black man, he would "never, ever do something that I thought was racist to another ethnicity," adding that in Montana he asked Native Americans "bluntly, did they find the name racist."

"Every Native American that I spoke to - to a T - had no problems with the name. At all," he said.

"When you say the name Redskins most people think of the football team," Clark said. "The reaction is usually, 'I love the Redskins' or 'I hate the Redskins because I'm a Dallas Cowboys fan.' It has nothing to do with race. It's pride."

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Blackhorse disagrees, saying those who defend the Redskins name do it for financial reasons.

"They're basically just ignoring us and saying, 'Oh yeah, we like you guys,'" she said. "To me that's a very patronizing response, like patting us on the head and saying, 'We like you people. But we're going to continue making money off of stereotyping you.'"

The Redskins, founded in 1932, have won three Super Bowls and are one of the NFL's marquee franchises, ranked by Forbes as the third most valuable team. Owner Daniel Snyder, 49, who purchased the team and FedEx Field in 1999 for $800 million, has said he will not change the name under any circumstances.

Maury Lane, an adviser to Snyder, said the name Redskins was created by Native Americans.

"On the inaugural Redskins team, four players and the head coach were Native Americans," he said. "The Redskins logo was designed by a Native American, Walter 'Blackie' Wetsel, the former president of the National Congress of American Indians.

"So the organization continues to believe that the name is full of honor and respect and courage."

Some teams have changed their name in the past, like Stanford University, which in 1972 went from being the Indians to the Cardinals.

"I love the Redskins and I don't think the name is hurtful," said season-ticket holder Morris Brown. "It's noble. I think Native Americans should be honored."

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Frances Kerry)