By Jack Shafer For the past 14 years, Dan Snyder, principal owner of the Washington Redskins football franchise, has defied incessant calls from activists and journalists to change his team's name and Indian logo to something less "offensive." In May, he added extra rebar and a moat of burning oil to his previous vows on the name-change, telling USA Today that "We'll never change the name," adding, "It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps."
Obviously, Snyder could never have thought that a good liberal like President Barack Obama would side with him on the issue. The best Snyder could hope for was that the president would remain too busy with domestic and global crises to comment on the dispute.
Then, in an interview last weekend with the Associated Press, Obama suited up and entered the name-change field. What was his position on the name of the Washington Redskins football team, the AP asked. Is it insulting to Native Americans? Did he think it should be changed? Obama acknowledged the controversy diplomatically, careful not to rile Redskins loyalists, but said that if he were an owner of the team, "I'd think about changing it."
The loss of the president was not as grave as the loss of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who retreated from his adamant support of the Redskins name last month when he told a local D.C. radio audience, "If one person is offended, we have to listen." Just four months ago, he wrote a letter to 10 protesting members of Congress that the nickname was "a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect."
Now, with Obama opposing him and the commissioner of his own league backing down, it's officially Dan Snyder against the world.
Snyder doesn't lack for advocates, but beyond people on Snyder's payroll, it's hard to find anybody who will sincerely defend the Redskins name. His lead advocate these days appears to be his attorney Lanny J. Davis, former Clinton flack, lobbyist for African despots, and Washington laughingstock. Hiring Davis is the Washington way of acknowledging that you've run out of credible allies.
What's amazing about Snyder's last stand is how long it's taken for the anti-Redskins cause to reach critical mass. According to one scholar, the campaign against Indian team names can be traced to the 1940s, when the National Congress of American Indians began to fight unflattering stereotypes of Indians across the culture. In the early 1970s, such schools as Stanford University and Dartmouth College surrendered their Indian monikers, beginning a trend at colleges and high schools that continues today, thanks to the policing efforts of college athletics.
According to a recent Washington Post piece, a dozen Native American activists confronted the team president in 1972, insisting that he replace the name because it was a "derogatory racial epithet." That year, the team's fight-song lyrics, which included (pdf) such Indian specific lines as "Scalp ‘em, swamp ‘em" and "Touchdown we want heap more" were rewritten. Protests continued into the 1980s. In January 1988, a group called the Concerned American Indian Parents distributed to the press agit-prop posters depicting the fictitious "San Diego Caucasians" and "Kansas City Jews," and just prior to the kickoff of that year's Super Bowl between the Washington Redskins and the Denver Broncos, a plane towed a banner over the stadium reading "Make The Redskins America's Team. Change The Name." Embracing those themes was Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, whose April 17, 1988 column (paid) amplified the group's anti-Redskins arguments. Jack Kent Cooke, then-owner of the team, would not yield, and was quoted by Cohen as saying, "I like the name, and it's not a derogatory name."
However odious the Redskins moniker may be to some, the most ardent defenders of identity politics and enemies of racism — I'm talking about you, Mr. and Ms. Liberal — never shied away from occupying the owner's box during home games. Over the years, such liberals as Tip O'Neill, Jack Valenti, Joe Califano, Ed Muskie, Douglas Wilder, Earl Warren, Stewart Udall, George McGovern, Tom Clark, Eugene McCarthy, Al Gore, Warren Magnuson, Stuart Symington, Byron White, and others enjoyed the team's hospitality. Even Ethel Kennedy accepted eight tickets from the team for her family. If the name disparaged and denigrated Native Americans, its obviousness was lost on the team's liberal guests — or they ignored it. Dan Snyder's box is more likely to be filled with TV journalists than politicians.
You could argue that today's critics of the name are guilty of "presentism," that is, they're lamely using present-day standards to judge the people who lived in the past. And yet the Washington Post has been editorializing in favor of a name-change since 1992 (paid), and its many columnists have, too, and in a persistent fashion. If opinion journalism wasn't enough to keep the issue alive, an ongoing and hugely unsuccessful legal effort by activists to rescind the team's federal trademark protection has preserved the issue as a news staple. Federal law prohibits trademark protection for names that are "disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous, or disreputable," and the plaintiffs insist "Redskins" qualifies on all counts. If the activists won the case, it would be only a symbolic victory. The team couldn't be forced to change its name, but the ruling would reduce the team's power to prosecute producers of unauthorized Redskins paraphernalia — jerseys, rugs, banners, coffee cups, caps, etc. Still, it's a sound strategy: Every time the plaintiffs lose or even plead in court, they win additional public support, in part because nobody likes being called a racist.
Cooke, who died in 1997, fended off such protests better than Snyder because his teams were more successful than Snyder's, and all that positive football news crowded the protesters' critical news into the margins. He knew how to work the press better, having owned newspapers and television stations himself. Cooke was so accessible to reporters that when I worked for an alternative weekly in the late 1980s and phoned his office for a comment about his stadium plans, he surprised me by answering the call himself to deal quick and humorous answers to my questions.
Snyder is no Cooke: He looks like an overgrown bratty little boy, whereas Cooke presented himself as a "Squire," and actually got people to call him that. Touchy about criticism, he famously sued Washington City Paper and its writer, Dave McKenna, for libel after it published an unflattering article about him in 2010. Snyder eventually dropped the case, but not before it detonated in his face like a cartoon bomb, making him look like a humorless, vindictive bully. If you had no opinion on Snyder before, you had a negative one now.
Among other things, the lawsuit (pdf) demonstrated Snyder's situational approach to visual imagery: It asserted that City Paper‘s playful cover photo was anti-Semitic because it penciled in "horns on his head, bushy eyebrows, and surrounded by dollar signs." If the suit's analysis of the cover was accurate (and it wasn't), then perhaps the Amerindian depicted on the Redskins logo and the team name could be inflicting unnecessary mental anguish on people!
A mudslide of opprobrium has been heaped on Snyder in recent weeks as publications (Washington City Paper, Slate, New Republic, and Mother Jones) have declared that the team nickname will no longer appear in their pages. No big deal, of course, as these publications aren't exactly full-fledged members of the sporting press. But Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King, Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter John Smallwood, Grantland's Bill Simmons, USA Today‘s Christine Brennan and others say they'll no longer use the name. Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wise, who opposes the name, says it will be gone in five years, tops. "And it's about time," he recently wrote. The issue has become such an article of liberal faith that the New York Times' Maureen Dowd set aside her meditations about the government shutdown long enough yesterday to join the media gang-tackle.
In an open letter to Redskins fans yesterday (pdf), Snyder restated his contention that the name is a symbol of "strength, courage, pride, and respect," oddly echoing without credit the June letter to Members of Congress by NFL Commissioner Goodell, who also claimed "the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride, and respect." Snyder also cited a 2004 (pdf) poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center that found no groundswell of opposition against the Redskins name among Native Americans, as well as an April 2013 Associated Press poll that found four in five Americans don't think the name should be changed.
Snyder seems to assume that he's on the winning side of a public referendum, but that's not how politics works. The people who actually turn out to vote determine the result, and Snyder's "supporters" as collected in the poll figures aren't passionate enough about the team name to assist him. With the media establishment joining the Native American activists against Snyder, a container ship filled with Lanny J. Davis clones will not be enough to change the outcome. Snyder needs someone with pedigree and status in this realm to defend him, a civil rights leader, a coalition of past and current players, or even a Colin Powell would do. But that someone either doesn't exist or is waiting until the 11th hour to appear.
Snyder is losing this one, and will continue to lose, perhaps continuing to lose status in the public eye after he changes the name. But he doesn't mind. He's good at losing. In the 15 seasons of the Snyder era, his team sports a win-loss record of 102-126, and it isn't getting any better.
You can never beat such a determined loser.