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Monday Night Marked By Redskins Name Debate

Sep 9, 2013
Originally published on September 9, 2013 1:19 pm



This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to spend a few minutes today talking about the power of words and labels. In a few minutes, we'll meet a person whose irritation with too many of the images he was seeing about Asian-Americans sparked what's become one of the most influential blogs about Asian-Americans. We're talking with the creator of the Angry Asian Man, Phil Yu.

First, though, we want to talk about an ongoing sore spot pertaining to one of America's most-watched sports - we're talking about football. Tonight marks the first Monday night game, pitting the Philadelphia Eagles against the Washington Redskins. But for some, it's more than just a game; it's a call to action. Many Native American leaders for years have been demanding that the Washington Redskins change the team name, calling it an offensive racial slur. Now the Oneida Indian Nation is taking that plea to the public with a series of ads like this one, which will be appearing today.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When a Philadelphia Eagles player used a racial slur to describe African-Americans, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did the right thing. He said that racial language is quote, obviously wrong, insensitive and unacceptable.

RAY HALBRITTER: I'm Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation, a proud sponsor of the NFL. I applaud Mr. Goodell for his actions. He is absolutely right. This kind of bigotry has no place in America. Now with the Philadelphia Eagles playing Washington in the NFL's first Monday night football game, the commissioner has the opportunity to stand up to bigotry again.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter. He's been leading the Oneida Nation since 1975. He's with us once again. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

HALBRITTER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What's the thought behind the ad campaign? Is it to kind of to rally the public to action?

HALBRITTER: Yeah. We're in a country that a lot of voices make a big difference. We're in a place where, over time, things can change and hopefully for the better, and that's one of the reasons. It's not just something against football or anything like that. We know there are a lot of great fans. We are great and proud sponsors of the NFL - Buffalo Bills in particular. And we are just simply bringing forward the point that, you know, we're in a country where there are certain values and ideals, and respect is very important. Symbolism means things. And that's very important to our people. And using those terms - "redskins" is an offensive racial slur. It's an epithet. It's something that we've decided to stand up and speak out about.

MARTIN: Recently, a number of publications, including The New Republic and Mother Jones, have announced that they will not use the team name. They'll use, you know, "the Washington team," for example. And over the weekend, Peter King, the pro football columnist, said that he would not use the team name in his columns anymore. And yet, as you pointed out, you know, a number of times Roger Goodell and the NFL commissioner and the owner of the Washington team have been adamant that the name is not going to change. So how do you feel this debate is going? I mean, do you feel that you're making headway or do you feel that you're kind of stuck?

HALBRITTER: No, I think that it is progress. I mean, that things do change and that's one great thing about this country. And that's one of the reasons why we decided to go to the general public and make this issue a little more well known. And I think that those are good - and we appreciate, you know, those respectful examples of looking and understanding that disrespectful terms, offensive terms, have really no place in America, and mutual respect should not be controversial.

We're especially inspired by Cooperstown kids, Cooperstown High School kids, who live in the town where the Baseball Hall of Fame is located, and they decided on their own initiative to change their team name from the Redskins to the Hawkeyes. And so we actually were so appreciative, we gave them the money, $10,000, to help make that costume change.

MARTIN: We - in fact, we last spoke with you about that. I just want to mention that we received this response from NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy in response to the ads. We called and said - asked, you know, what's the league's response to these ads, which are running. And he says that we respect that reasonable people may have differing views. The name from its origin has always intended to be positive and has always been used by the team in a highly respectful manner. How do you respond to that?

HALBRITTER: Well, you know, let's look at how the name came about. It was by Preston Marshall, the former owner of the Redskins and a known segregationist - he came up with this name. Now this was a person who was the last owner to integrate the football team - Washington's team - and a person who specifically put in his will that his money should not be used for any purpose that supports racial integration. That's the history of this name. Also, Webster's dictionary defines "redskins" as an offensive term for Native Americans. I don't know if the team or Roger Goodell or the team owner are developing their own dictionary, but that's an offensive term. It just simply is. And, you know, we applaud what Roger Goodell did regarding speaking out against the Eagles player that spoke and used a term that was offensive, and it should not be used and it should not be something. And that's - you know, that's not too complicated. I mean...

MARTIN: What would you want other fans to do? Those - as Mr. McCarthy mentioned - that reasonable people have differing views. What would you want people who support your position, who do find it offensive to do, what would you recommend that they do?

HALBRITTER: Well, there's a couple things. We have a Change The Mascot website, which they're welcome to come on and express their opinions, and hopefully we'll share that with the commissioner and the owner. And also, you know, this is a country where people can express themselves freely. And if they were to express their opinions to both the commissioner and the owner, I think that makes a difference. We don't expect things to change overnight, but we do think that - it is reasonable to think that in this country that, when people know that the term Redskins is offensive. And as Art Monk, who was one of the pro football hall-of-famer - one of the greatest players ever played for Washington - said, if Native Americans feel like Redskins is offensive to them, then who we are to say to them no, it's not? So this is something that, you know, this country is such a great country. People make a difference when they say things and speak up about these things, I believe it will make a difference. It can make a difference, and that's certainly something that we hope will happen.

MARTIN: Are you going to watch the game tonight or do you find it too painful to hear that over and over again?

HALBRITTER: Well, I just think I probably won't watch the game, but I really like football. We really are, as I said, sponsors of football. But I do think that we need to - we can't just shut ourselves out from things. I mean, this is an issue we need to address, and I haven't had any, made any plans to watch the game tonight.

MARTIN: Ray Halbritter is the representative of the Oneida Nation. He was kind enough to join us from his offices on the Oneida Nation homelands. That's in upstate New York. Mr. Halbritter, thanks for speaking with us once again.

HALBRITTER: Well, thank you for having me on your program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.