The controversy over the name of Washington DC’s football team is a prominent issue in the district and around the country. The following interview was conducted by Sameer Shaikh, with Ray Halbritter, a representative for Oneida Indian Nation, who is spearheading the Change the Mascot Campaign. In the interview, Mr. Halbritter explains the campaign’s position, and also addresses the team’s continuing defense of its name.
1. First, for brief background information to provide context: When was your organization founded, what are its aims, and what sparked its creation, given that Washington’s team has been around for 83 years?
Halbritter: The Change the Mascot campaign began in 2013 when, thanks to the efforts of the student body, the Cooperstown Central School Board of Education (Cooperstown, NY) voted to remove the R-word mascot from its interscholastic athletic, extracurricular and academic programs. The Oneida Indian Nation was so moved by the actions of Cooperstown students that a $10,000 contribution was made to help offset the cost of changing mascots.
With students leading the call for change our campaign was born, but the fight against racial mascots has been around for decades. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) launched its campaign to address stereotypes found in print and other media in 1968.
2. In order of importance, what are the things you find most offensive about the team name?
Halbritter: Go to any dictionary and you will see that the R-word is defined a racial slur. This word was screamed at Native Americans as they were forced from their lands at gunpoint. The R-word continues to have deleterious cultural, psychological and social effects on Native American communities according to public-health experts and multiple sources. While famous segregationist George Preston Marshall saw nothing wrong with using the R-word when he owned the team, civil rights leaders such as Suzan Shown Harjo have been rightly saying that it is unacceptable for a professional sports league to continue promoting such a derogatory epithet.
Native Americans are people, not mascots. We are not part of the past. We are a rich, vibrant community. We are many things, but we are not R-skins.
3. What are the main efforts your organization is making to achieve your goals?
Halbritter: Change the Mascot is a grass-roots effort to get NFL league office, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Washington franchise to change their mascot. We are working hard to educate the public about the damaging use of this word.
Our efforts have reshaped the debate surrounding the team name and brought this issue to the forefront of social consciousness. Since we launched, Change the Mascot’s civil and human rights movement has garnered support from a diverse coalition of prominent advocates including Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, Native American tribes, sports icons, top journalists, news publications, civil rights organizations, religious leaders, even President Barack Obama.
4. Looking through the arguments, it appears that the Washington football organization bases its defense of the team name on four main points. Can I ask you to address each of these one by one? First, they assert that they are not intending to disparage or offend, but instead honor American Indians. How would you respond to that?
Halbritter: We fail to see the honor in using a racial slur. Social science research has shown that the NFL’s promotion of the R-word racial slur has particularly serious effects on Native American children. The term Redsk*n isn't a benign classification of a person's skin tone. Not only has it been flung at our people in hatred, it also refers to the literal "red skin" bounty hunters would collect in order to be paid for the number of Natives they slaughtered. It isn't a term that honors the "strength, courage, pride, and respect" so many argue it does. It is a term born of the violence Native Americans have been experiencing for hundreds of years.
5. As some American Indians have expressed support for the team name, how would you address the claim that you don’t speak for all American Indians?
Halbritter: There are many factors as to why some American Indians support the term and as with all conversations about language, there are a wide variety of opinions. It is true some Native people do not find the word offensive. However, the same thing could be said about the “N”word” that refers to African Americans, but no one would say that would be an acceptable use for a professional team name.
6. The team reminds us that the name represents a long and proud sports tradition, and a change in the name would effectively be turning their back on the history of a storied franchise. How would you respond to this?
Halbritter: Many terms commonly used 10-15 years ago to describe groups or people of color have changed because society as a whole noted they were being improperly used. It is not a matter of being politically correct or turning your back on history, it’s a matter of being a decent, respectful human being.
Just imagine the impact it would have on so many if the team was to embrace a new name, and create something positive for ALL.
7. Following on the theme of tradition, what would you say to those who indicate that the name has been around for nearly 85 years, but the objections are only starting now and are really about political correctness?
Halbritter: Again, we feel that the racism and bigotry associated with the name is not an honorable tradition. Times change and so do traditions. This is not an issue of political correctness, it is in issue of civil rights, dignity and respect for human beings. While many people will boast of the history and tradition of the team, they typically leave out the real legacy of the team. George Preston Marshall, the original owner of the team and the man who gave it its current name, was an avowed segregationist and the last team owner to integrate his squad, years after the rest of the NFL.
8. How should the NFL handle this situation? What would you ask TV broadcasters, sports stations, and newspapers to do?
Halbritter: The NFL should embrace the call and change the name. We ask broadcasters, sports stations and newspapers do refrain from using the term as well, and many of them have.
9. What would you ask Washington fans and football fans generally to do?
Halbritter: It’s OK to support your team but ask for a name change. Group mentality makes people think using the term is OK but when someone comes face to face with an American Indian, odds are they would NOT use that term.
10. Given that the issues presented by the team name seem rather obvious, what do you think is driving the team to be so adamant in its position?
Halbritter: Change is hard. It can be difficult. But more and more people and organizations are embracing change and siding with us. Just recently, as you know, Governor Jerry Brown, and California’s lawmakers passed Assemblyman Luis Alejo’s bill that eliminates the dictionary-defined R-word slur as a mascot from all of the state’s public schools. Their historic step to build a better future stands in stark contrast to the dogged inaction of Washington’s NFL team, which in the face of all the evidence that this term degrades and offends Native Americans, continues to defend and promote the slur for its own financial gain.
11. How can people make an impact on the Change the Mascot Campaign?
Halbritter: There are several things you can do to support this campaign.
Use your power as consumers. Don’t buy or wear Washington team merchandise.
Contact your local television, radio stations and newspapers and ask them to refrain from saying or using the R-word when they are covering the Washington team. Many national broadcasters and news outlets are taking this step, and local broadcasters and news organizations can do the same.
Write letters to Washington Team owner Daniel Snyder, 21300 R*dskin Park Drive, Ashburn, VA 20147, asking him to change the name.
Contact the NFL league office and Commissioner Roger Goodell and ask for the Washington franchise to change their mascot:
-Write to Roger Goodell at NFL Commissioner, 345 Park Ave., New York, NY 10154
-Call the NFL league office at 212-450-2000.
-Send a message to Commissioner Goodell on Twitter @nflcommish with the hashtag#ChangeTheMascot
-Write to the NFL’s VP of Social Responsibility Anna Isaacson at the same address or e-mail her at Anna.Isaacson@nfl.com and let her know that you want a name change
Tell as many people as possible about the Change the Mascot campaign by posting the link to www.changethemascot.org on your Twitter feed and Facebook page. You can also email that link to your friends and family, and tell them to email it to their own circle of friends and family.
All of these are great ways to be involved and supportive.