The Washington NFL team’s name, and how this looming crisis can be avoided

Amidst real fears about No Such Agency reading all our emails, rampant and unrepentant military sexual assaults and the momentous decisions coming with the end of the U.S. Supreme Court’s session, another Washington crisis is brewing.

The opportunity for public airing and open anticipation of a crisis is rare. They more usually break in secret and then bloom in public when it’s already too late to suggest how to avoid them.

But the Washington pro football team and the NFL face this crisis about the team’s nickname and in the early going, they’re only making it worse. There is no more reviled word to Indians than this.

The way out is change. Change, as Dave Zirin writes on Grantland today, is coming. You can get ahead of it — owner Dan Snyder and Commissioner Roger Goodell — or it can roll over you like you are a southern governor in 1965.

No one would put up with a team named the Washington N-Word, or K-Word, or C-Word or any other vile, racist term from our distant past, or at least what should be our distant past.

People and corporations seem to have an affinity for making a small crisis worse just when some smarts could instead end it. Congressional leaders asked for a name change. Responded Snyder:

“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

My parents told me to never say never.

For his part, Goodell grew up with the achievement and inspiration of his courageous U.S. senator father, Charles, who was one of the first American leaders to oppose the war in Vietnam and paid dearly for that leadership.

Roger Goodell grew up in Jamestown, NY in a region once owned and sanctified by the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations, with the Seneca Nation of Indians watching his backyard, its “Western Door.” Goodell knows better in his heart than to defend, as he did in a disingenuous letter back to Congress, this racist nickname. He should instead follow Tim Graham’s lead from The Buffalo News this week.

Would this picture of Snyder, left, and Goodell, right, with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, ever have been possible if the team were the Washington Blackskins, or worse?

Does Snyder really want to be the NFL’s Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, standing at the schoolhouse door 50 years ago Tuesday trying to stop black students from ending segregation? Shouldn’t Goodell be a modern Medgar Evers, or a James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi?

This is the same fight — because sports today sets societal tones and directions more so than ever. [Thank you Jackie Robinson]. But this is also clearly an avoidable crisis. Don’t block the schoolhouse door. Step aside for what’s right.

Yes, people will holler — many of them white, some black, but very few native. If Snyder and Goodell don’t listen to those native leaders and act now to stop this crisis, it will consume the team and damage the league. Lawsuits will be filed. Protests will be mounted. Boycotts will ensue.

The team has a racist legacy. Its first owner was a segregationist. One of the most poignant and brilliant lines a sports columnist ever wrote was on the topic of the Washington NFL team being the last to employ black players. Shirley Povich of the Washington Post had an ongoing feud with owner George Preston Marshall. From Povich’s sports journalism center’s bio:

But of all his crusades against racial inequities, his campaign against Marshall was the most satisfying. By the late 1950s, every NFL franchise but Washington had at least one black player. Marshall’s resistance stemmed in part from the white southern fans to whom he marketed the team, and Povich missed no opportunity to rap him for this cynicism. After the Cleveland Browns trounced Washington, he uncorked one of the most famous lines a sports page has ever printed:

“Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Red-skins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”

As a proud graduate of Dartmouth College, a school with a long tradition of educating Indians, I know first hand the anger and reaction that took place after the college’s 1974 decision to change its teams’ unofficial mascot from the Indian to the Big Green.

But I also received an eye-opening education there, and learned much from a course on the history of the American West, taught by a professor who went on to be president of Dartmouth. History is clear about how Europeans treated native Americans. That vestiges of this remain today in the NFL is more than an embarrassment, it’s wrong. Dartmouth banned the name nearly 40 years ago. Why is the NFL failing?

Today, this crisis is small — a letter from Congress, answers back, and determined chatter on social media and by leading sports journalists and Indian leaders. The only way to contain it, however, is to face it head on, admit the name is wrong and racist and start a contest to rename the team.

Goodell must be the leader his father was. This is the son’s test. Think back to your time in Jamestown. Would you ever allow a Seneca to be described this way?

This crisis can end, now.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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One Response to The Washington NFL team’s name, and how this looming crisis can be avoided

  1. KenFromCalifornia says:

    people who don’t get it, they don’t get that they don’t get it.

    mr. daniel snyder doesn’t get it. he gets that people don’t like the current team name…he just doesn’t care.

    what he doesn’t get, like some leaders of a certain polical party, is that America is more tolerant of things that it wasn’t before, and less forgiving of things that were excused (and encouraged) back in the day.

    and mr. goodell is on the wrong side of this one…he can’t possibly believe that with the growing level of tolerance among the American public, something like this will just go away in deference to the older, less-tolerant football fans. with daniel snyder’s unfortunate statement, combined with the likelihood of rg3 never being the same explosive player, the fedex stadium will continue to have its seating capacity permanently lowered by the construction crews (as has been going on in that stadium for the past 4 years). nfl attendance is trending downward, and daniel snyder’s mistakes have helped make that happen.

    watch some guys show up in the stands and make the sarcastic statement by putting on some white hoods with a “we love Snyder” sign…the nfl brand will survive a world-wide visual such as that, but it will be clear that those types of responses will finally make mr. goodell kick daniel snyder, and his unfortunate attachments to a hurtful history, all the way down to the curb.

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