WASHINGTON — Should Washington’s NFL team be forced to change its name?
It’s a question so common in D.C. these days that local sports fans often ignore it, choosing to talk about the team’s dwindling playoff chances rather than a franchise name that now is offending and dividing people far beyond the confines of FedEx Field.
Sports are a wonderful distraction from the sometime overwhelming aspects of life. No matter the time of year or type of struggle a person goes through in a day, there is a sporting event on television nearly 365 nights per year waiting, arms open and ready to comfort and distract.
Professional sports are nothing more than games played by a lucky few people who generally make a lot of money while doing so. Yet sports are a wonderful, unscripted piece of our society, affording us the opportunity to bond with our fellow man or woman, and join together to care about something larger than ourselves.
And yet to some Native Americans, many sports have simply become a constant reminder of the oppression and racial inequality that still exists in 2015.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the fight over what to call Washington’s NFL franchise, which shows no sign of fading.
In December of 2014, the Federal Communications Commission denied a petition that asked for the removal of the word “Redskins” from the air. The petition asserted that the Washington NFL team name was obscene and profane.
The agency ruled that the Washington football mascot was neither “obscene” nor “profane.” In order for something to be obscene, it must “depict or describe sexual conduct,” and in order for something to be profane it must “be sexual or excretory in nature,” the agency said.
Since that hasn’t quelled the controversy over the team’s name, one might assume that the FCC would have been inundated with complaints on the subject.
Quite the contrary. Between 2013 and 2014, only 72 complaints were lodged with federal regulators that referenced the Washington team name.
Ninety-six percent of those complaints asked for the FCC to remove the word “Redskins” from the air.
The 72 complaints came from 63 different people in 28 states and the District of Columbia, and all of the complaints were filed electronically.
The FCC declined to comment on the controversy. “The FCC reviews all complaints received and determines next steps. However, we do not comment on potential or pending investigations.” said agency spokeswoman Kim Hart.
The Capital News Service obtained the complaints from the FCC through a Freedom of Information Act request. The complaints vary in nature, ranging from thoughtful to pleading, and everything in between (names were redacted for privacy reasons):
“Please, only you have the ability to cease and desist the use of this hateful word from broadcasts,” – San Francisco, Calif., Dec. 28, 2014
“Our young children are exposed to this word splashed on everything from door mats to banners proclaiming the name proudly. This word is derogatory and insulting and many people think so. It is time to stop letting them use this word,” – Irving, Texas, May 5, 2014.
“Not only am I grossly offended you allow a team to broadcast a racial slur as their name, I am also offended that you have let it occur for this long,” – Brooklyn, N.Y., Dec. 29, 2013.
“Make a stand against the offensive racist themes in sports. There is a conspiracy/willful ignorance/blindness/cover-up where many Indigenous North American issues are concerned,” – Bayport, Minn., Dec. 8, 2013.
“This slur should not be uttered, repeated on the airwaves irrespective of whether or when the Washington (National Football League) franchise changes its name, mascot,” – Houston, Texas, Dec. 8, 2013
One of the complainants was Brian Barlow, the vice president of the George Washington University Native American Student Association and a member of the Cherokee Nation.
Barlow filed his complaint in December of 2013, after watching a CBS broadcast of a game between Washington and the Kansas City Chiefs.
“The term ‘Redskin’ is dictionary-defined as offensive and outdated. It is intrinsically derogatory, and I should not have to hear an offensive racial epithet describing my people…OBSCENE and INDECENT. Change the name,” Barlow said in his complaint.
Barlow, the current president of the George Washington Native American Student Association, was surprised to learn about the minimal number of complaints.
“Some people just don’t feel like it matters,” Barlow said. “I feel as though Indian country doesn’t have a ton of faith in the government. Why would I submit something to the government when they have never done anything for Indian country?”
““I’m a Millennial Native youth who is out in D.C. trying to believe that I can make changes to the government, but my dad, who is back home and runs a small business probably wouldn’t do it,” Barlow said.
“There are older generations of Natives who don’t have a problem with the word, it’s just a part of who they are,” Barlow added. “I think a lot of my peers understand the issue more than most folks.”
The low number of FCC complaints does not surprise all Native Americans.
Joel Barkin is the vice president of communications for the Oneida Indian Nation, the group responsible for the Change the Mascot campaign, a main opponent of the team’s name.
“The number doesn’t surprise me, because if you look at where most of the organizing activity has been, it hasn’t really been going towards the FCC,” Barkin said. “We’ve really directed much more of our efforts to going directly to the media and requesting that they don’t use the word.”
The full list of media outlets who do not use the word “Redskins” grows each day.
The current list of almost 50 media outlets includes the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Denver Post, Seattle Times, New York Daily News and the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service, college newspapers like the University of Alabama’s Crimson White and the University of Maryland’s Diamondback, and a handful of broadcast and television stations across the country.
Over the past two years, the Change the Mascot Campaign has grown exponentially. A full history of the efforts to change the Washington team name can be found at the group’s website: www.changethemascot.org.
“Our goal all along was to create an issue that forced people to pick a side,” Barkin said.
In the past year, an increasing number of prominent politicians have decided to pick a side.
In May of 2014, 50 senators — 48 Democrats and two independents — sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, imploring him to change the team’s name.
“Now is the time for the NFL to act. The Washington, D.C. football team is on the wrong side of history,” said the letter, which was primarily written by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. D-Nev., and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “What message does it send to punish slurs against African Americans while endorsing slurs against Native Americans?”
The following month, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelled the team’s trademark on the name, deeming it “disparaging to Native Americans.”
The team immediately appealed the decision, and the appeal process could take years before reaching a conclusion. If the decision were to be upheld, the team could lose its exclusive right to make and sell products with the name.
The Washington football team declined to comment, but its leaders have been outspoken on the issue since the beginning.
Dan Snyder, the owner of the team, gave his perspective on changing the team’s name in a now infamous interview with USA Today in 2013.
“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps,” Snyder said.
However, Snyder’s opposition is becoming increasingly more powerful each day.
“The president of the United States has been outspoken on this issue,” Barkin added. “He has been crystal clear in many forms and venues, that it’s inappropriate.”
Obama, a rabid sports fan, has spoken out against the name multiple times, most recently at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in November. He praised Adidas, a German sporting goods company and one of three apparel manufacturers on the Forbes list of “100 Most Valuable Brands,” for its new initiative that compensates schools for switching away from any “potentially harmful Native American imagery or symbolism.”
In addition to Obama, all three Democratic presidential candidates have supported a name change.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, signed the letter written by Reed and Cantwell, while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley both spoke about the issue with Jorge Ramos on the Fusion television network.
“We hope that in every generation we become more understanding of each other, more inclusive of each other and more respectful of the dignity of every individual and every culture,” said O’Malley told Ramos. “So I think it probably is time for the Redskins to change their name.”
On the Republican side, presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush defended the name during a town hall meeting in New Hampshire in October.
“I don’t think we need to be so politically correct and try to, through government, take the name Redskins off,” Bush said. “If that’s what they want, leave them alone, for crying out loud.”
Bush continued: “I just think private businesses ought to be left alone. You know, having trademark lawsuits, having the federal government get involved in this for political correctness purposes. People’s views on these things evolve. Let it happen naturally, organically.”
The Oneida Nation of Wisconsin responded to the GOP candidate by saying that Bush had “just narrowed the choice for president in Indian country.”
No major Republican candidates have come out in support of the name change, while both Donald Trump and former Florida Sen. Marco Rubio both believe the team should not be forced to rebrand.
With Washington actually in this year’s playoff chase, and the team set to play one of the NFL’s three games in London in 2016, the controversy over the team’s name will likely be brought back to the presidential stage in the heat of the election.
Even in the face of continued defiance from the Washington football team’s owner, Barkin and the rest of the people behind the Change the Mascot campaign remain positive about what they hope to be an inevitable outcome.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by how receptive the American public has been to this campaign and feel very confident moving forward that the name will change,” Barkin said. “We’ve reached a point of no return for the Washington team.”