Washington Redskins name controversy latest battle in long war

Cady Vishniac | 10/24/2013, 6 a.m.
When President Barack Obama recently suggested that Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder consider changing the name of his football team, ...
Washington Redskins owner George Marshall, who chose the team name, in a publicity photo in 1954. the Star Collection, D.C.

When President Barack Obama suggested that Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder consider changing the name of his football team, a long-simmering debate over racially charged symbols came to a full boil.

Activists who have spent their careers fighting to change the use of team names and mascots considered racist or insensitive were overjoyed. Defenders of the status quo were embittered, attacking the president's statement as political correctness run amok.

Toward the end of a press briefing that had focused on the government shutdown and foreign policy, the president, almost as an aside, brought up Washington's popular NFL team.

"I've got to say that if I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team - even if it had a storied history - that was offending a sizeable group of people, I'd think about changing it," said the president.

Chief Joseph Brings Plenty of South Dakota's Cheyenne River Sioux tribe applauded the president's statement, calling the current team name "destructive and racist."

"It's good to know that we have a president here who understands how that makes a person feel," said the Lakota leader. "If that change was to be made, I would be happy with it."

The D.C. football franchise got its start as the Boston Braves in 1932 and was renamed the Redskins a year later. The team retained the name when it re-located to the nation's capital in 1937. In spite of sold-out games and national titles, critics have slammed the team for reducing a race to its skin color.

Though the word "redskins" is considered derogatory, Snyder defended the name of his team in the wake of the commander-in-chief's comments.

"I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name," he wrote in an open letter to Redskins fans. But, he added, he had no plans to change it. Citing the racial makeup of the inaugural Redskins team in 1933, on which four players were Native Americans, Snyder called the name "a badge of honor."

However, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was later quoted saying that Snyder was "way down the road" in considering a name change. "I'm confident he's listening," said Goodell. "I'm confident he feels strongly about the name but also wants to do the right thing."

Accusations of racial insensitivity against Redskins management recall the fight to integrate the team in the majority-black city. It was only in 1962, 16 years after the rest of the NFL integrated, that owner George Preston Marshall finally agreed to allow African Americans to suit up. Marshall did so under duress; President John F. Kennedy declared that a segregated team would not be allowed to play in D.C.'s federally owned stadium, which today bears his slain brother's name.

Until then, Marshall had reveled in owning professional football's last segregated team, famously announcing, "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites." Marshall's successors have shown more sensitivity, making Doug Williams the first black quarterback to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy after the team routed the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII.