It was supposed to be the last word: Never.
But the decades-long argument over the name of Washington’s football team, the Redskins, has only grown louder since owner Daniel M. Snyder vowed in May he would never — “you can use caps” — change it.
The newest voice emerged Saturday: President Obama.
“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,” Obama said in an interview published by the Associated Press on Saturday.
Obama is only the latest to weigh in. Prominent sports journalists have announced they will refrain from using the name. A Native American tribe in New York has launched a national ad campaign. On Monday, it will hold a public conference near the Washington hotel where National Football League owners are meeting. And, in a move that has been described as potentially more significant than any lawsuit or legislation — both of which are also in the works — a group led by a former Federal Communications Commission chairman is working to persuade broadcasters to stop saying the name on the airwaves.
But the willingness of the president, the nation’s most influential sports fan, to weigh in has raised the protracted debate to a new level of prominence.
“As the first sitting president to speak out against the Washington team name, President Obama’s comments today are historic,” said Ray Halbritter, a representative for the Oneida Indian Nation, which has launched a “Change the Mascot” campaign against the team. “The use of such an offensive term has negative consequences for the Native American community when it comes to issues of self-identity and imagery.”
Yet even with opposing voices growing in numbers and power, key constituencies are absent from the name-change bandwagon: many of the nation’s 5.2 million Native Americans, the NFL, advertisers and the football team’s die-hard fans. When candidates at the Virginia gubernatorial debate were asked about the issue at a recent debate, neither took a position on it.
Redskins fans have, for decades, watched the team slowly shed pieces of its Indian-themed imagery.
Cheerleaders no longer wear long black braids and do a mock rain dance for touchdowns. The band no longer plays marches with elaborate feather headdresses. And nearly forgotten are the original lyrics to the fight song “Hail to the Redskins” as written by the movie star wife of the team’s first owner, laundry magnate George Preston Marshall.
“Scalp ’em, swamp ’um. We will take ’um big score,” has since been replaced with, “Beat ’em, swamp ’em, touchdown! — Let the points soar!”
The fight to retire the Redskins name dates back at least 40 years to a tense meeting at the team’s offices. That spring day in 1972, about a dozen American Indian representatives demanded of then-team President Edward Bennett Williams that the organization drop the nickname, which they described as a “derogatory racial epithet.”
How the team became the Redskins in the first place is either a story of honor or shame, depending on who is telling it. In one version, Marshall changed it from the Braves in 1937 to honor then-coach William “Lone Star” Dietz, a Sioux Indian. But a historian has since cast doubt on Dietz’s Indian roots, saying he stole the identity of a Native American man. Many people question whether Marshall, an anti-integrationist, would have honored him.
Marshall famously resisted integrating the team until 1961 under threat from the federal government, making the Redskins the last NFL team with an all-white roster. In his will, he stipulated that not a single dollar of the Redskins Foundation, to be created with his estate, go toward “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.”
Marshall was still majority owner at the time of the 1972 meeting. Despite his history, he agreed to have the cheerleaders stop wearing “Indian-style” wigs and to change the fight song.
But the team’s name would remain untouched.
“We would not carry a symbol offensive to any group,” Williams told The Washington Post later that year. “Had I been persuaded, we would have taken action accordingly.”
Snyder declined a request for an interview, but his attorney Lanny Davis said Saturday that the name is “our history and legacy and tradition.”
“We at the Redskins respect everyone,” Davis said in a statement. “But like devoted fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks (from President Obama’s home town), we love our team and its name and, like those fans, we do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group.”