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Perspective: Pressuring for a Washington Redskins name change (w/video)

WASHINGTON

He showed up at the bar for a birthday party, but J.C. Rocha was huddled near the big-screen TV in the corner. It was inevitable. When the Redskins are on, football rivals the city's obsession with politics.

Increasingly, the passions are colliding. Washington's NFL team — one of America's best-known and profitable franchises — is facing pressure over the name, decried by critics as disparaging to American Indians, and the debate has spread to Capitol Hill.

"We're in a day and age in which if there is something that is inappropriate we shouldn't be doing it," said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who joined 50 other senators in writing letters to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell insisting the Redskins name be retired.

The team, which is in Tampa on Thursday for a game against the Buccaneers, has for years faced the demands. But the cause has gained intensity in the past year, including a recent trademark decision, and now even some of the most loyal fans sense something will eventually happen.

"In my heart of hearts, they'll always be the Redskins," said Rocha, 37, who grew up in Washington and was watching his team play the Cleveland Browns on Monday at Rebellion DC, a bar in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. "But it's hard for me to argue, if someone takes offense, that we should keep it just because of tradition. No tradition is enough to shame a race. A lot of my friends agree with me; a lot disagree."

The team is fighting back with a public relations campaign that includes videos featuring American Indians who say the name is a point of pride, a charity focused on Indians and a website, Redskinsfacts.com. It has made the quintessential beltway power play: hiring lobbyists.

"We'll never change the name," owner Daniel Snyder told USA Today in May 2013. "It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps." In a letter to fans last fall, released four days after President Barack Obama said he would consider changing the name if he were owner, Snyder was more conciliatory.

"I've listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name," he wrote. "But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans, too."

A team spokesman did not respond to several requests for comment for this article.

In May, the Associated Press published a national poll showing 79 percent of Americans support the name, though that was down 10 percentage points from the last national poll conducted in 1992.

The senators, all Democrats, who wrote to Goodell held up the NBA's swift action against L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racial comments. "The Washington, D.C., football team is on the wrong side of history," the May 21 letter read. "What message does it send to punish slurs against African-Americans while endorsing slurs against Native Americans?"

The letter cited opposition from every national tribal organization representing more than 2 million American Indians across the country.

In June, opponents gained more momentum when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team's trademark protection, contending the name and logo is disparaging to American Indians. The team filed a lawsuit on Aug. 14 to overturn the decision.

The fight began decades ago, and one of its leaders is Suzan Shown Harjo, an American Indian who attended a Washington game in 1974 with her husband (since 1997, the team has played in Landover, Md.).

"People were just objectifying us, touching our hair, poking us," Harjo recalled in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "When they would talk to each other they would say 'Look, there's some Rs.' " She refuses to say the full word.

"I don't think they meant to be rude or mean," said Harjo, 69, a longtime activist based in Washington. "It just came so naturally."

Early since "Little Red" was banned at the University of Oklahoma in the early 1970s, hundreds of high school and college teams have changed their name or mascot.

The Florida State Seminoles have faced criticism, but it has been largely muted. The school has a partner in the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which has shaped the image away from "Sammy Seminole," a cartoonish depiction.

In 2005, when the NCAA tried to ban from postseason play teams with "hostile and abusive" nicknames or mascots, then-Gov. Jeb Bush helped lead a successful appeal exempting the team.

"How politically correct can we get?" Bush asked at the time. "The folks that make these decisions need to get out more often." As other teams have changed, Washington remained steadfast. When Snyder bought the team in 1999, activists reached out to him. "We thought, 'Great, he's young, he's Jewish,' " Harjo said. "He never responded."

The franchise continues to play to packed audiences despite on-field woes. In the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Washington, Sunday afternoons are punctuated by loud cheers from homes when the team scores. Forbes this year named it the third-most valuable NFL sports team at $2.4 billion. (The Bucs are No. 18, at $1.2 billion.)

The team began in Boston in 1932, and played inaugural games at Braves Field, hence the name Boston Braves. Owner George Preston Marshall changed the name to Redskins after moving the team to Fenway Park. The team has said the Redskins name was in honor of coach William "Lone Star" Dietz, who claimed to be Sioux, and some Indians on the squad. Researchers have cast significant doubt on Dietz's story, and he once served jail time for fabricating his heritage to avoid serving in World War I. And recently uncovered news articles, quoting Marshall, cast doubt on the stated reason for the name.

Marshall, owner of a laundry chain in Washington, relocated the franchise to the nation's capital in 1937 and would later generate controversy by resisting efforts to integrate black players.

Today, the franchise readily points out that the modern helmet logo was created by an Indian from Montana, though that man's family is divided on the use of "Redskin." The new website Redskinsfacts.com notes that Indian leaders such as Sitting Bull referred to themselves as "red men" or "red skins." Scholarly research further shows the term was derived from Indians themselves.

But experts say as time wore on, the term joined other derogatory portrayals of Indians widespread in American culture. Opponents contend the slur is rooted in the practice of white men bringing back the "red skin" of a native, like an animal pelt, a point that is disputed. The debate is likely to gain more attention as the NFL season begins. Broadcasters Tony Dungy, the former Bucs coach, and Phil Simms said last week they would try to avoid using "Redskins." Some news outlets already refuse to print the name.

Despite attention on Capitol Hill, action seems remote. Legislation to block the trademark is stalled in the House and many lawmakers feel the issue is not one to deal with.

"It's a football team that's given back to the community. It's got a lot of pride," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "Come on. The world is blowing up and we're talking about a football team?"

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the decision is for the owner to make. "I'm a United States senator and we face such important issues that confront this country," Rubio, a passionate football fan, said when asked about the name. "I know some are offended by it. Others are deeply committed to the name and what it stands for traditionally for the franchise."

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, echoed Rubio's comments, saying it was an owner decision and that the team, which does preseason practice in the state, has been good for economic activity. The Washington Post editorial board lit into McAuliffe, noting how he condemned the planting of a Confederate flag on private land.

Rocha, the fan at the bar in Washington last week, said the fans are partly to blame, for showing up to games and buying merchandise with the Redskins logo. He thinks owner Snyder will eventually crumble.

"I think he'll change it, not because of principle, but because of money."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

Take our poll

Should Redskins name go?

The Washington Redskins are facing calls to change the team name. Critics say it is disparaging and racist. Defenders say the name is a way to honor the spirit of Native Americans. What do you think?

Yes, the name is offensive and should be changed.

No, the name honors the tradition of Native Americans and should remain the same.

Perspective: Pressuring for a Washington Redskins name change (w/video) 08/22/14 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2014 6:00pm]

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