With public pressure mounting on the Washington Redskins to finally, after 80 years, adopt a new, less derogatory name, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has argued that the name isn't offensive at all.
Last month, 10 members of Congress called on Goodell to change the team's name. In a letter dated June 5, Goodell responded, "Neither in intent nor use was the name ever meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group."
He went on:
The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context. For the team's millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America's most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, and respect. [Deadspin]
Goodell's claim that the name was never meant to offend is highly suspect.
Former team owner George Preston Marshall changed the team's name from "Braves" to "Redskins" in 1932 when he moved them to Washington, D.C. Goodell noted that point in his letter, but said that change was made to avoid confusion with baseball's Boston Braves.
However, Marshall was a notorious racist — even for his own time — who forced his coach and team to wear war paint and dance on the field. He also presided over the last segregated team in the league, refusing to sign any black players until given an ultimatum from President John F. Kennedy's interior secretary, Stewart Udall. Since the Redskins' stadium was on public land, Udall ordered Marshall to add black players to his roster or lose his stadium.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), one of the lawmakers who recently urged Goodell to change the team's name, took offense to his remarks.
"Unfortunately, NFL Commissioner Goodell's letter is another attempt to justify a racial slur on behalf of Dan Snyder and other NFL owners who appear to be only concerned with earning ever larger profits, even if it means exploiting a racist stereotype of Native Americans," she said. "For the head of a multi-billion dollar sports league to embrace the twisted logic that 'Redskin' actually 'stands for strength, courage, pride, and respect' is a statement of absurdity."
Goodell's letter came at the same time that Luntz Global — the campaign strategy firm run by famed Republican pollster Frank Luntz — has conducted an online survey about whether the name should be changed. And the firm, though it hasn't said who it's working for, is to hold a focus group Thursday at which it will ask participants about their general thoughts on the league and on the Redskins' name in particular, according to Think Progress.
Luntz is probably most famous for crafting George W. Bush's message on global warming. He advocated for the use of the phrase "climate change" because it sounded less ominous, and urged Republicans to publicly cast doubt on the science behind the phenomenon. His slogan is: "It's not what you say, it's what they hear"
Though Luntz has worked on behalf of the NFL before, the league denied he had been hired to research this issue. The Washington Redskins declined to say if Luntz was working for them.
The Redskins have been under fire for their name for some time. In the latest tactic designed to push the team into reconsidering a name change, a bipartisan group of legislators has introduced a bill that would cancel all trademarks involving the word "Redskins," a move that, if successful, could cost the team a fortune. A separate trademark lawsuit brought by advocates of Native Americans is pending in federal court.
Still, team owner Dan Snyder has flatly refused to ever change the name.
"We'll never change the name," he said recently. "It's that simple. NEVER. You can use caps."
Public opinion may be on Snyder's side. An Associated Press survey last month found that four in five Americans were OK with the name Redskins. Just 11 percent of respondents said the name should be changed.