Credit: Illustration by Julia Terbrock

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NEVER.

That’s what Daniel Snyder told me seven years ago. He even suggested the typography. “You can use caps,” he said then, as if “never”—lowercase—didn’t sound like long enough.

Never would he change the name of the local NFL team he owns. Snyder meant every capitalized letter of it. But, as he is finding out, never is a long time, and his time is quickly running out.

In the end, whether the name stays or goes probably isn’t going to be his call. The NFL has long maintained that team names are a club matter, not a league one, but this time, pressure for the commissioner and for Snyder’s fellow owners to force a name change will increase significantly. They are going to tell him the time has come. He’ll resist. But then sponsors will tell him that either the name goes or they do. And then the name will go, as it must, and should have long ago.

Perhaps all that is wishful thinking, but the world has changed in these past weeks, and there’s no going back. George Floyd died after a police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. And rather than look away, the nation is looking, with fresh eyes, at the issue of systemic racism.

“It is so unfortunate that we have come to this place,” says Amanda Blackhorse, in reference to the killings of Black men and women by law enforcement. “But the nation, and the world, really is rising up against racism and colonialism.”

Blackhorse, who is Navajo, is a leader of the name-change movement. She is skeptical that Snyder will really change his team’s name, but she thinks the best chance will come if NFL players speak up in numbers and in ways they haven’t before.

“That would change everything,” she says. “Not just NFL players, but Washington team players.”

The United States was born of twin sins, slavery and the atrocities against the continent’s original inhabitants. As many as 10 million Indigenous people lived in the area that would become the United States when Christopher Columbus arrived. By the time White men began naming their sports teams for the victims of this genocide, roughly 250,000 remained.

Major League Baseball’s Boston Braves (now based in Atlanta) adopted their name in 1912. The Cleveland Indians took theirs in 1915. Dozens of high schools and colleges would, in turn, take on an array of such team names—Warriors, Savages, Redmen—with all of the attendant stereotypical imagery. Washington’s NFL team arrived from Boston in the 1930s, a damnable team name in tow.

Snyder says that his team’s name is about honor, pride, and respect. The context of the times tells us otherwise. Historical context always matters, and these team names proliferated in an era when U.S. government officials in D.C. rarely, if ever, treated Native Americans with honor and respect.

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Congress granted the Secretary of the Interior supervision over American Indian affairs in the mid-19th century. From the late 19th century and into the 1930s, government bureaucrats arbitrarily enforced so-called civilization regulations that forbade Native Americans from speaking their languages and practicing their religion. In many cases, Native Americans were even forbidden from leaving their reservations.

Aunt Jemima, a brand born in 1889, will soon disappear from breakfast tables, because Quaker Oats now acknowledges that the name and its associated imagery were based on a racist stereotype. This is no less true of the origin of American Indian team names.

Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, told me in 2016 that “there were a lot of very powerful forces at work to deny Native American people of agency over their own identities and their very lives. And that’s when the mascots emerged.”

This was an age when Native American children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools under an assimilation policy that amounted to a new form of genocide, this time a cultural one. The motto of this initiative: “Kill the Indian and save the man.”

City dwellers in the U.S. rarely saw, let alone interacted with, Native Americans. In the absence of actual American Indians, the wider culture concocted imaginary caricatures. Cigar-store Indians, the old Land O’Lakes butter logo, and American Indian mascots are all a part of that.

“It is an expression of the idea: ‘We, the White people, won—and we can do anything with you and your imagery and your identity that we choose to do,’” Gover said. “And that’s a hell of a thing to say to somebody.”

Suzan Shown Harjo, thepresident of the Morning Star Institute, an advocacy group for Native Americans, found the Washington team name to be a hell of a thing when she moved to D.C. She is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, and was the lead petitioner in a long-running trademark case concerning the Washington team name.

The case, which began in 1992, depended on a particular clause of a 1946 law called the Lanham Act, which said federal trademark registrations should not be granted to marks that may be disparaging. Harjo and her fellow petitioners had to prove that the team name was disparaging to Native Americans when the registrations were granted, between 1967 and 1990.

That seemed as if it might require a time machine, but the petitioners won at the appeals-board level of the patent and trademark office in 1999, the year that Snyder bought the team. In 2003, a U.S. district court ruled the petitioners had waited too long to file—that they were, in effect, too old to press their case. So Harjo tried again, with younger petitioners. 

Blackhorse was lead petitioner in that second case. I asked her once what she would say to Snyder if she ever got a chance to talk with him. She said she would ask if he would dare to call her “a redskin” to her face. So, in 2013, I asked him that question for her.

“I think the best way is to just not comment on that type of stuff,” Snyder responded. “I don’t know her.”

To which Blackhorse replied: “He’s right. He doesn’t know me, or my people. And if he did, he wouldn’t use that name.”

The petitioners won once again at the level of the trademark office’s appeals board. Then they won in federal court, where U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee found that the team name was disparaging during the relevant time. He cited dictionary definitions and decades of opposition to the name by Native American leaders.

The football club appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which issued a stay pending the outcome of another case. The Supreme Court, in that other case, ruled that the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act is unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.

The Blackhorse case rested entirely on that clause. And months later, in 2018, the Fourth Circuit vacated the earlier decisions that had canceled the Washington club’s federal trademark registrations, an inevitable outcome once the disparagement clause died.

“Anytime Native people are winning,” Harjo told me, “they change the rules.”

Still, the legal decisions that found the team name disparaging remain in the public record. Blackhorse says that is crucial to remember: “We said the term … is disparaging, and the courts agreed with us. It’s just that now the Supreme Court says it’s OK to register a disparaging term.”

Washington was also the last team in the NFL to integrate. George Preston Marshall, the racist former owner of the franchise, refused to sign a Black player until 1962, when the federal government, which owned the land on which the football stadium stood, threatened to revoke the team’s lease.

The stadium would later be renamed for Robert F. Kennedy. Last week, outside RFK, a monument dedicated to Marshall was unceremoniously removed. 

“That was huge,” Blackhorse says. “I never thought that would happen.”

She is pleased NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke out against the oppression of Black people. Now she hopes he’ll do the same for her people.

“It’s great the NFL came out to support Black Lives Matter,” Blackhorse says. “But they’re being hypocritical, in my opinion. They should also speak up about Native stereotypes and anti-Native racism. But I don’t think the NFL sees the mascotting of Native people as racism still.”

The paradox at play here is the dual American myth of the noble and ignoble savage. This double notion predates the 1826 novel that cemented it in the American imagination, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.

The noble savage inhabits a mystical bond with nature; the ignoble savage is murderous and amoral. The Washington football team blends both of those stereotypes: The image on the team’s helmets invokes the noble savage, while the team name invokes the ignoble one.

“The Indian-in-profile is always a dead giveaway of the noble savage,” Gover said. “And the word ‘redskin’ is inherently ignoble. So the Washington team manages to mix these myths together.”

Not long before I spoke with Gover, in 2016, Snyder issued a statement in which he said that the Washington NFL team and its fans “have always believed our name represents honor, respect, and pride.”

The man trades in superlatives: always—and never.

The notion that his team name always meant honor and respect is belied by the era in which these team names came to be. History is a stubborn thing that way.

And now, as the nation looks inward in an attempt to see longtime issues of race in entirely new ways, it is time: The name must go.

It is past time, really. But when—OK, if—Snyder actually does it, the critique can’t be that he waited too long. It’s never too late to do the right thing.

No, wait. Make that NEVER. You can put it in caps. 

Erik Brady is a contributing columnist for the Buffalo News. He covered issues surrounding the Washington NFL team name for USA Today until last year, when he retired as the last member of the national newspaper’s founding generation.