Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The team’s announcement Friday that it will be conducting a “thorough review” on changing its name has been a long time coming and surely will result in a far better choice to brand the consistently beleaguered franchise.
I’ve been covering the name-change issue for close to 30 years, starting with Native American activist Suzan Shown Harjo being a party to an action known as Pro Football, Inc. v. Harjo. It was an attempt to take away the team’s trademarked name and filed on Sept. 12, 1992 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB). She petitioned to cancel the registration, but eventually lost the case on appeal.
I was there in Minneapolis in 1992 before Super Bowl XXVI when Harjo led a game-day protest at the Metrodome because Washington’s NFL team, which would go on to defeat the Buffalo Bills, was playing that day. Jesse Jackson was among those protesting, but left early because he had tickets to the game.
A few weeks earlier, I met with then-owner Jack Kent Cooke, and started the interview by pointing out that Webster’s unabridged dictionary used three italicized letters—der., as in derogatory—before its definition of the team’s nickname.
“I don’t care what Webster’s says,” he huffed. “I use the Oxford Dictionary, and my dear boy, it says no such thing.”
Then I wondered if he’d ever asked the opinion of his friend, the late William Safire, about it. A New York Times political columnist and a former Nixon speechwriter, Safire also wrote elegantly on the use of language every week in the Times’ Sunday magazine.
Within 30 seconds, Cooke’s secretary put Safire on the line.
“Willie, I’ve got this reporter from the Post here and he wants to know what you think about this whole Redskins brouhaha,” said Cooke, who always seemed to delight in pronouncing multi-syllable words. Then came the answer.
“Uh huh,” Cooke said, now frowning. “Uh huh … yes, but.” The call concluded with an emphatic “fuck you, Willie,” followed by a phone slam.
Cooke told me he’d only disclose what Safire had said off the record. After some back and forth, I reluctantly agreed. Yes, Safire advised a change, Cooke said, then started ranting and growled, “no way,” only a tad more colorfully.
When Cooke died in 1997, I wrote about our exchange a few days after his April funeral.
I also learned from a source close to Cooke that before his death, Cooke was seriously contemplating a name change in the late 1990s. The owner could foresee a huge economic benefit, especially all that newly branded paraphernalia that would bring him even more millions. But Cooke became ill and never got it done before he passed away.
In 2014, I spoke with Jordan Wright, the granddaughter of George Preston Marshall, the team’s founder and original owner. He was an avowed racist, segregationist, and the last NFL owner to integrate his team when he traded for the late Bobby Mitchell in 1963.
Wright said she thought the name was terribly offensive and was not at all hesitant about saying so out loud. Her husband’s grandmother, she had learned, was a full-blooded Cherokee, and it was long past time to change the name.
Still, Snyder’s announcement about the “thorough review” was quite surprising, considering his stance in 2013 when he insisted in an interview with USA Today that he would “NEVER” change the name. Yet, when the team announced it was expunging Marshall’s name from its ring of honor at the stadium and also editing him out of their written history, he signified that perhaps he was now thinking about it.
And so, Snyder’s upcoming “thorough review” should be a mere formality, especially since FedEx, whose CEO, Fred Smith, is a 10 percent minority owner in the franchise, put out a release on Thursday asking for a name change. Other corporate sponsors also are applying pressure, and so is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Clearly this is looking like a done deal, with the only mystery remaining what Snyder will soon be calling his team. I always liked the name Washington Federals, which D.C.’s representative used in the now long-gone U.S. Football League. The Washington Senators might work, too, although that still has a baseball ring to it. But anything is better than what the franchise has now.
Leonard Shapiro retired in 2011 after 41 years as a sports reporter, editor, and columnist at the Washington Post.