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Oneida Nation Fights to Change the Name of the Washington Football Team | The Nation

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

Oneida Nation Fights to Change the Name of the Washington Football Team


Washington Redskins helmets displaying the emblematic colors and team mascot. The Oneida Indian Nation tribe in upstate New York said Thursday, September 5, 2013, it will launch a radio ad campaign pressing for the Washington Redskins to get rid of a nickname that is often criticized as offensive. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

This has been a difficult week for Washington football team owner Dan Snyder and National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s argument that their beloved Redskins* nickname is actually “highly respectful.” It has been a difficult week for their public relations case that Native Americans are either honored by it or don’t care and the only people who want it changed are effete, left-wing, politically correct thugs who hate Mom, apple pie, and, of course, the NFL.

The team moniker that Keith Olbermann calls “the last racist word you can say at the office and not get fired” is being challenged forcefully by the very people Snyder and Goodell are claiming to honor.

First came the news that the Oneida Nation of upstate New York will launch a series of radio ads in the DC market calling on Goodell to “stand up to bigotry” and change the name. The Oneida Nation also launched the website changethemascot.org. “We do not deserve to be called redskins,” Oneida leader Ray Halbritter says in the ad. “We deserve to be treated as what we are—Americans.”

Then, as the Redskins prepare to travel away from the DC area, where the Native American population is a whopping 0.6 percent, to Green Bay, a place near actual indigenous communities, a protest has been called for outside of Lambeau Field by the Oneida Tribe Indians of Wisconsin. The Oneidas have announced will be bringing signs and banners inside of the stadium as well. As tribe member Brandon Stevens said, “We’re actively and proactively creating an avenue of education and seeking out remedies to see how we can come to an understanding where the offender isn’t the one dictating what the intent of the mascot is.”

This last point is critical because so much of this argument on the sports page is about how Washington football fans, Snyder, or even Goodell feel about the prospect of a name change. The recognition of Native American voices in this discussion is long overdue.

The Washington Post is doing just that, calling or the name to change on Thursday, referencing the Oneida protests and then writing that Snyder needs to “listen more carefully to those who love the team and hate the ethnic slur.”

Even that bastion of politically correct leftism, Forbes magazine, published a column titled Dan Snyder Should Change The Name Of His Football Team Now by Monte Burke. Granted the column, true to Forbes, reads more like an inter-office marketing memo to Snyder, but Burke does write, “Snyder and Goodell would clearly like for this issue to just disappear. It won’t until the name is changed. Their best bet now is to get ahead of the game and get control of the issue. It never pays to wait.”

According to Forbes, Snyder shouldn’t wait. For Oneida leader Ray Halbritter, waiting isn’t even an option.

“We have highest rates of infant mortality and suicide in the United States,” he said to me. “Seven of the ten poorest counties in the country are Native American. They say having a team named after a slur is not harmful. Well, it is harmful. Language and symbolism are very important. People who are not on the receiving end of this, I can understand why they don’t see it. They don’t feel a connection because they are not the ones being harmed. That’s why we’re standing up. This is not just about having a politically correct way of speaking. We have children and we are saying enough is enough.”

For Halbritter this question is really about his children and whether the next generations of Native Americans in an increasingly multicultural America are going to be represented on the highest possible cultural platform by “a slur.”

“It’s about the self-esteem and self-perception of our kids. Our children are growing up with a NFL team saying this is what we are. It reminds me of Letter from a Birmingham Jail when Dr. Martin Luther King talks about what it does the first time a young black man hears ‘the n-word’ or is denied entry into restaurant. It’s about how our children will see themselves.”

Halbritter then laid down a very stark challenge for the NFL Commissioner. His said, “If Roger Goodell were in a room full of Native Americans, he would not say: ‘Hello Redskins, nice to see you.’ If Roger Goodell met my children he would not say, ‘Nice to meet you little redskins.’ So it stands to reason that if a term is not acceptable for casual conversation, it should not be marketed to America through a sports team.”

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It seems that Roger Goodell is listening. On Wednesday, he began to distance himself from his previous defense of the name as a “unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.” Speaking on local DC sports radio, Goodell said, “If one person’s offended, we have to listen, And ultimately, it is Dan [Snyder]’s decision. But it is something that I want all of us to go out and make sure we’re listening to our fans, listening to people who have a different view, and making sure that we continue to do what’s right…”

That sound you hear is Dan Snyder being gently placed under the bus. Or it might just be the tick-tick-tick of the clock counting down to the day when the name enters the dustbin of history. It’s past time.

* Many journalists, including Sports Illustrated’s senior NFL writer Peter King and USA Today’s Christine Brennan, have recently announced that they will no longer use the Redskins name. This is very welcome but I want to explain why I am. If I was writing a story about their star quarterback Robert Griffin III, for example, I would call them “The Washington Football Team” or “The Burgundy and Gold.” But if I am writing specifically about why the name should change, I’m going to use it again and again because it is a badge of shame and in articles about protest, it’s existence, in my view should be blared loudly and placed on Dan Snyder’s shoulders until it changes.

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