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Is the Redskins name offensive? For many, it just feels wrong

Photo: Ray K. Saunders/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Daniel Snyder's devotion to the Redskins name is rooted in supporting the team since he was a boy.

This is about two boys, both football fans. One spent most of his childhood in Maryland. He also lived in England for a year when he was 12, and New York for a year after that, but the time away did not change his idea of home. The boy's name was Daniel Snyder, and there was never any doubt what he would do on NFL Sundays. He once told the Washingtonian magazine that even when his family didn't have a television, he and his dad would go to a store to watch football. He would cheer for Washington.

The other boy grew up in upstate New York. His name is Stephen Fadden, and he is Native American, though nobody really used that term when he was a kid in the 1960s. He spent vacations with his grandparents on the nearby Mohawk reservation. And so, when he saw those famous red helmets, there was no doubt. It was the feather on it that sold him. He would cheer for the Redskins.

The boys were born 11 years apart. They did not know each other, but you can imagine them sitting together on a couch, watching their beloved Washington Redskins on television, wearing their fandom on their sleeves, their chests, their heads -- wherever the merchandise fit. You can see them high-fiving and talking easily for hours about their favorite team -- bonding instantly, the way sports fans do.

Snyder, of course, became a billionaire, and in 1999, he did what very few American men have ever done: He bought the team he cheered for as a child. By then, Stephen Fadden had stopped cheering for them.

*****

It started to feel wrong in 1978. Fadden was 24. For his whole life, Syracuse University had a mascot known as the Saltine Warrior. It started as a joke -- in 1931, a school humor magazine published a hoax story about a Native American named Big Chief Bill Orange, whose remains were supposedly found on campus. The joke stuck. In 1951, a statue of the Saltine Warrior was placed on campus; a member of Onondaga Nation posed for it.

But in 1978, a Native American student group protested the use of the mascot. Oren Lyons, an Onondagan Chief and former Syracuse lacrosse player, told the school paper, the Daily Orange, his objection was "all in the presentation ... the thing that offended me when I was there was that guy running around like a nut." The protest succeeded remarkably quickly -- maybe because the Saltine Warrior started as a college prank, and maybe because it was just a mascot, not a nickname. (The school's teams were the Orangemen and Orangewomen; they are now the Orange.)

Fadden started thinking about his Redskins. Over time, he had seen beyond the feather. He saw fans dressed up as caricatures of his people. He heard them sing about "braves on the warpath" in the team's fight song, "Hail to the Redskins." He saw fights break out in his high school when somebody would taunt a Native American with "injun" or "Redskin." When Syracuse got rid of the Saltine Warrior, it hit him: The Redskins do not have to be the Redskins.

Did Fadden stop cheering for the Redskins completely at that moment? Come on now. He was a fan, OK? He couldn't just delete that part of himself and be done with it. He needed more than a decade, a slow weaning. He cheered through the glory of the '80s, for John Riggins and Joe Gibbs and Super Bowl champions. Eventually his discomfort with the Redskins grew larger, in his consciousness, than his passion for them. And so he stopped.

"Cognitive dissonance," Fadden says. "You're aware something isn't right, but you can't put your finger on it. That's the way I was on it for a while. When I was a kid, I saw it as harmless. I became much more aware of the cultural tensions, even the spiritual tensions involved."

We like to think of racism as a set of clearly defined thoughts and beliefs belonging to other people. Fadden knows better. As a boy who loved comic books, he read stories about Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and felt uneasy. ("Kind of a weird feeling when you are the enemy," he says.) He has seen racist imagery in old Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons that were incredibly popular at the time. They would mortify most Americans today.

Sometimes a racist symbol or name seeps so deep into our culture that we don't know how to remove it, so we pretend it's not really a stain. But it is.

Fadden does not want to scream and argue about the Redskins name, and he will not demonize those who disagree with him. He understands. He was a Redskins fan, after all. But he is on the faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe now, and he has heard all the "reasons" why the Redskins name is OK, and he finds them laughable. It's not an offensive term? It doesn't harm anybody? Many Native Americans accept it? It's a way to honor Native American culture? Please stop.

"There is no 'Native American culture,' " Fadden says. "There are more than 500 Native American tribes with different cultures and traditions. A lot of the tribes weren't these buffalo-hunting, horseback-riding, spear-waving people. A lot of tribes were horticulturalists, but dances with baskets just don't conjure it (for teams). These stereotypes say more about the people who are enforcing them than about the people they say there were honoring."

Fadden does not want a fight. He wants respect. He wants people to understand. But Daniel Snyder does not understand. The Redskins are not just his business; the team is part of who he is. Some NFL owners have been more successful than Snyder, and some have been worse, but what separates Snyder is the intensity of his passion. Sometimes that passion has cost him. He has made bold moves instead of wise ones. He has acted out of hunger instead of rationality. But the passion is real, and at this point, it is probably hard for even Snyder to unspool the threads of it.

How can we differentiate between his determination as a businessman, his ego as an owner, and his love for the Redskins as a fan going back to childhood? We just know he has immersed himself completely in the Redskins. He has no interest in selling the team. He has no interest in moving the team. He has no interest in changing the uniform colors. And so ...

"We will never change the name of the team," Snyder told USA Today in May. "As a lifelong Redskins fan ... I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it's all about and what it means ... We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps."

Says Fadden, "They can invent new traditions. There is this notion they have to do it because it's tradition. That is a poor reason to maintain something that is racially and culturally insensitive."

While Snyder tries to get Washington to the Super Bowl, Fadden pays attention to the Panthers, the Jaguars, the Falcons, the Seahawks and the Eagles. Why? He loves those animals: panthers, jaguars, falcons, seahawks and eagles. He is also a fan of the Washington Huskies and Minnesota Timberwolves because in Mohawk culture, Fadden is from the wolf clan. Is that a silly reason to like the name of a sports team? Is it?

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