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Washington's Long Overdue Name Change Is the Right Decision, Made for the Wrong Reasons

We've known for a long time that the Washington NFL team's name was racist and offensive. Monday's announcement crystallized that the team cares more about input from sponsors than the Native Americans who have voiced their opinions for decades.

The Washington NFL team is changing its name in response to recent pressure from major corporate sponsors and after decades of Native Americans pleading for the club to listen to what they were saying: that the “Redskins” mascot and imagery disparaged and offended the very people the football team claimed it was honoring.

Monday’s announcement, that the team will be “retiring the Redskins name and logo,” is at once both a cause for celebration and a representation of the structural racism that our country was built upon. “The Redskins represent … our exhaustion,” was how Stephanie Vielle, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, put it in a conversation with Sports Illustrated six years ago. Finally, that source of fatigue for many Indigenous people has been relieved. A new chapter, with a new name TBD, will begin in Washington. But let’s not forget what it took to get here.

Daniel Snyder crossing his arms

Daniel Snyder purchased the Washington team in 1999, seven years after the first petition to cancel the team’s trademarks was lodged by Suzan Harjo and a group of seven Native Americans. Absent any other defining features, such as winning a championship, Snyder’s tenure at the helm of the team had been perhaps most greatly marked by his steadfast refusal to remove his team’s racist moniker. Most infamous was his 2013 assertion to USA Today that he would “NEVER—you can use caps” change the name.

What changed was not the calls from Native Americans—they have been there all along, asking to be heard, repeatedly being denied. What changed was the threat of losing money, and so it’s important to frame today’s name change correctly: the right decision, for the wrong reasons.

Snyder’s brazenness in the face of calls to change the name through two decades of ownership was remarkable for not only his refusal to change the name, but also his refusal to even acknowledge that there were Indigenous people who were offended by the name. The team, and the NFL, faithfully recited the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey that said 90% of self-identified Native Americans were not offended by the name, discounting the tribal leaders and activists who stated otherwise. Snyder’s club fought in the court of public opinion, and also in the courts.

“It was about winning,” Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo and social worker who brought the second challenge against the team’s trademarks with four other Native Americans, said two weeks ago. “It wasn't about the humanity part of things. It wasn't about how it affects youth and their self-esteem. It was about them wanting to be right.”

And for a long time, it seemed that Snyder and his club would get to be “right.” Even 10 days ago, when the team announced it was undergoing a review of the name, Phil Gover, one of Blackhorse’s fellow plaintiffs in the trademark challenge and an enrolled member of the Paiute Tribe of Utah, said he was wary of getting his hopes up. “It always gives me whiplash, because I have been thinking about these issues for my whole life,” Gover, 37, said that day. He hasn’t watched an NFL game in five years, he added, as a direct result of his experience with the team through the trademark suit.

“We always felt they didn’t care,” Gover said. “If they cared, they would listen, they would be more respectful of the perspective and point of view they have represented, and they would have done this a long time ago. They should have done it when the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in 2014 told them their trademark was racist and when a federal judge upheld that same decision. It’s always been racist; it’s always been shameful.”

In 2014, when the TTAB voted to cancel the team’s six “Redskins” trademarks, the calls to change the name surged. That same year, Snyder’s team hired a lobbying firm; their stated purpose, per lobbying disclosures, was “Discussions of team origins, history and traditions, Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation and youth sports, activities of Original Americans’ Foundation.” The Washington team has spent $800,000 lobbying on this issue since 2014. Also in 2014, the team created the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” which gave $3.7 million to Native communities in its first year but has steadily decreased its giving, as tribal leaders told Sports Illustrated they were ghosted or denied aid, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2017, WROAF hosted a series of football camps in Native American communities in different parts of the country. Zeke Prado, then the football coach at Lower Brule High School, on the Lower Brule Reservation in South Dakota, worked with foundation officials to set up a camp at his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University, in July 2017. The three-day camp, attended by high school players from about 10 tribal schools in the region, included a discussion one night about the team name and logo. Prado recalls Mark Moseley, one of the former Washington players the foundation brought to the camp, speaking strongly about keeping the name.

“It bothered me when he was really vocal about it,” Prado said, “and he is a white guy talking to Native kids about why they should like the logo or embrace it.” (Moseley was recently quoted in the Washington Times as saying a name change “would be hard for us,” meaning former players.)

After the camp was over, Prado says he struggled to reach foundation officials to pay an approximately $9,000 invoice Dakota Wesleyan issued in August 2017 for food and housing. The bill was finally paid in April 2018, nine months after the camp was held, Prado said, citing an email he received from a foundation official sent at the time. The team has provided other aid to Lower Brule in recent years, including an eyeglasses program last October, but Prado’s dealings left a bad taste in his mouth. “I didn’t trust them anymore, if that’s the way they are going to work with tribal schools,” he said. Around the same time he was unable to reach WROAF officials for timely payment, other tribal leaders say they also lost communication with the foundation or were told funding had dried up. He noticed something else that happened in the summer of 2017: The Supreme Court ruled that banning disparaging trademarks was unconstitutional—effectively ending Blackhorse et al.’s challenge of the Washington football team’s.

“It really opens up your eyes to why they are really doing it; what they are really doing it for,” Prado added. “Did they really care about the students, or was it Snyder protecting the logo?”

Snyder even took some of his team’s part owners on visits to Native American communities. Boyd Gourneau, who has held leadership positions with Lower Brule, recalls Robert Rothman accompanying Snyder on a visit to their reservation. This could be interpreted as his awareness of what the true pressure point would be, and ultimately was: pressure from Snyder’s minority owners and corporate partners, notably FedEx, which holds the naming rights to the team’s stadium. This happened as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement and a nationwide reckoning on race that has swiftly, and belatedly, made racism bad for business.

Monday's announcement comes 10 days into what the team calls a “thorough review,” but there is nothing new, or different, about how disparaging the name has been since it was switched from “Braves” to “Redskins” in 1933 to avoid confusion with the Boston Braves baseball team. The team says Snyder and Ron Rivera, the head coach who was hired on Dec. 31, will pick the new name and design “that will enhance the standing of our proud, tradition rich franchise and inspire our sponsors, fans and community for the next 100 years.” But just as Native Americans have refused to let the team tell them that the racist name honored them, let’s not let the team tell us that this renaming is anything but what it is.

“[Snyder] is kind of like George Preston Marshall, who refused and was eventually forced by law to integrate his team,” Blackhorse said, one day before FedEx applied pressure for a name change, and two days before the team announced its “review” of the name. “I think someone's going to have to make him to do it.” She was right, as she was in 2014, and as all the other Native American voices that have been calling for a change for decades have been.

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