News & Politics

New York Tribe to Air Radio Commercials Targeting Redskins’ Name

The Oneida Indian Nation is launching an ad blitz against Washington's NFL team in hopes of getting it to change its name.

Goodell. Photograph via US Air Force.

With the NFL season beginning this week, sports radio stations will surely be in a football overdrive. But thanks to a New York State tribe, fans who listen to a few local stations might also hear a message about the Washington team’s name.

The Oneida Indian Nation is buying up airtime on a few Washington-area radio stations to broadcast a new advertisement to urge the Redskins to change their name. The minute-long spot is the first in what the Oneida’s plan as a season-long radio campaign against a team name that many view as a racial epithet.

In the ad, Ray Halbritter, the chief executive of the Oneida Nation’s business enterprises, calls on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to condemn the Redskins similarly to how he responded to a video that showed Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper dishing out racial slurs while attending a country music concert. While Goodell was powerless to fine or suspend Cooper, he did flatly denounce the Eagles receiver’s words.

“Comments like that, they are obviously wrong, they are offensive and they are unacceptable,” Goodell told ESPN radio.

But Goodell’s history with the Washington team suggests he is unlikely to equate one player’s racist rant with a franchise’s name. The son of Senator Charles Ellsworth Goodell, Republican of New York, he grew up in Washington as a fan of the team. And this past June, he sent a letter to Congress calling the debate over the team’s name “complex,” but one in which he sides with the team.

“The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any other disparagement that could be viewed in some other context,” Goodell wrote. But Joel Barkin, a spokesman for the Oneidas, tells Washingtonian Goodell is behind the times in not seeing an equivalency between Cooper and the local NFL franchise.

“We’re pointing out the error in that thinking,” Barkin says. “Look up in Webster’s dictionary the term ‘redskin’ and it’s very clear. It says ‘racial epithet.’ Maybe the NFL has a separate dictionary they use, but generally speaking, it’s not really their decision to say this is not an offensive name.”

The Oneida Nation’s ad is set to play Sunday and Monday on WTOP-FM and WJFK-FM, a sports radio station with heavy football coverage. Barkin, a spokesman for the tribe, tells Washingtonian the Oneidas also sent the commercial to Dan Snyder-owned WTEM-AM, but it is unclear whether an ad condemning the Redskins will air on the team’s broadcast home.

Fan sentiment, measured in polls this year by the Associated Press and Washington Post, is overwhelmingly with the team. Two-thirds of people in the Post survey said the name should stay.

But, Barkin says, “you don’t ask the person who’s not being offended.” Still, he adds that the general outlook is shifting against the team. He points to a high school in Cooperstown, N.Y. dropping the name for its sports teams earlier this year. The Oneidas responded with a $10,000 gift to buy new jerseys.

Additionally, more and more publications—though not necessarily sports-heavy titles—are adopting editorial policies that omit the Washington football team’s name. The Kansas City Star, Washington City Paper, DCist, Slate, The New Republic, and Mother Jones have all announced in the past year they will refer to the Redskins by other terms.

Even though the Oneidas’ ad focuses on the commissioner, Barkin says the tribe has no beef with the league.

“The nation is a sponsor of the NFL,” Barkin says. (The Oneidas sponsor the Buffalo Bills.) “A lot has changed on this issue. This resonates in a way that historically it never has. At some point does it become too uncomfortable for the business model?”

Barkin says that the Oneidas plan to buy air time in Washington throughout the season and in other cities while the Redskins are on the road.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.