News & Politics

Six Reasons the Campaign to Change the Redskins’ Name Isn’t Working

The push to change the name is intensifying, but it's still all up to Dan Snyder.

Tribal leaders from across the country attended Tuesday's press conference. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

A Capitol Hill press conference held Tuesday by several Native American groups campaigning against the name of Washington’s NFL team featured the reading of a strongly worded letter to the league’s 31 other teams, a vow by Washington state Senator Maria Cantwell to cancel the league’s tax- and trust-favored status, plus commitments to demonstrate outside football games, and claims that their movement to dump the dictionary-defined racial slur is growing. But the event only underlined six essential truths surrounding the franchise’s name:

Dan Snyder’s fellow owners aren’t going to put pressure on him.

The NFL has much bigger problems right now than the Washington team’s name. And while changing the name might provide momentary distraction from Ray Rice, commissioner Roger Goodell’s botching of Rice’s case, Adrian Peterson, and the league’s ongoing difficulty to address its players’ traumatic brain injuries, it wouldn’t lessen the severity of those issues. Ray Halbritter, an Oneida Indian Nation leader who’s been leading the year-old Change the Mascot campaign, said the name controversy is the easiest to deal with.

“The NFL is currently facing an integrity crisis,” Halbritter said. “The Washington team’s name should be the simplest to fix.”

But that’s a cynical and jaundiced assessment of the NFL. As long as he’s still got his owners’ backing, Goodell has bigger problems to deal with than one team’s name.

Snyder’s not going to change the name midseason.

Even if Snyder picked up a copy of the September issue and read our free advice for him, a name change isn’t going to be announced in the middle of the season. What are you going to drunkenly sing at games when Kirk Cousins upstages Robert Griffin III? “Hail to the TBDs”?

Not that Snyder is quieting down any time soon.

Snyder, in Hallbritter’s words, is “deploying odious tactics” in his defense of his team’s name, from his Original Americans Foundation that gives undisclosed financial donations to needy tribal communities in exchange for token support to his website that attempts to whitewash the name controversy with evidence like William “Lone Star” Dietz’s questionable genealogy. In media appearances, Snyder has backed down from the days of his all-caps “NEVER,” but his ESPN interview earlier this month suggested no softening on the issue.

Strongly worded letters have rarely changed anything.

We can think of two missives in the history of recorded thought that have had their desired effect—Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” In the letter issued to NFL owners today, the Change the Mascot campaign seeks to make the entire league responsible for the Washington team’s name.

“The league is promoting this racial slur, with the resources of every team, including yours, which makes it a league-wide crisis,” the letter reads. “Indeed, Congress has granted the league tax-exempt status and anti-trust exemptions, in part, because it is a singular American institution—one in which you are a financial stakeholder.” And no body part in the NFL hurts quite like an owner’s wallet, right?

Congress will not revoke the NFL’s tax-exempt status.

Congress can’t do anything right now. Though Cantwell’s bill now makes two that threaten the league’s tax-exempt status, she told reporters today that she’s not interested in working with Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, sponsor of the other proposed legislation, because it’s not focused purely on the team-name controversy. (Coburn wants to end the tax exemptions that all major professional sports leagues enjoy because of their structures as nonprofits owned by their franchises.) Cantwell’s a Democrat seeking to raise her profile, Coburn’s a grumpy Republican budget hawk. Why would they ever work together? “The NFL needs to join the rest of America in the 21st century,” Cantwell said, adding that her bill is intended only as punishment for Snyder’s team.

The federal government’s strongest play is one that could ultimately benefit Snyder.

Snyder is planning for his next stadium, and he’s already goading local jurisdictions to compete—through public funding—for where the team will play once it leaves FedEx Field. If he wants to knock down Robert F. Kennedy Stadium and build anew, he’ll need to go through the feds, who own the land there and lease it back to the District. There’s precedent there. Original owner George Preston Marshall’s avowed racism nearly got the team kicked out in 1962 when the Kennedy administration threatened it with eviction if it didn’t finally start signing African-American players. Cantwell said Snyder should expect the same if he tries to move the team back to DC without first changing its name.

“We would continue the precedent,” she said. If Snyder changes the name before breaking ground, he’ll greatly increase his chances at a fat public subsidy from DC taxpayers.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed

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.