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'It's about respect' - time for NFL's Redskins to change team name

Date

Theresa Vargas

Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III

Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III

Washington: The current fight to change the name of the Washington Redskins was fuelled, in part, by a symposium last year on Native American sports mascots that featured a panel of experts and drew an audience of 300. At one point, a young man who had shown up in Redskins gear tossed it to the ground in an emotional show of new-found solidarity.

All the while, listening quietly and anonymously from the crowd was the granddaughter of George Preston Marshall, who brought the professional football team to Washington in 1937 and gave the team its now controversial name.

Jordan Wright, 65, has tried to stay in the shadows as the debate around the NFL team's name has intensified. She has quietly expressed her opinion to friends and acquaintances when asked, but she has hesitated to speak publicly on the issue.

She knows what people expect her to say: The team's history matters. She also knows what she believes: The name needs to change.

"It's about respect," Wright said this week from her Alexandria, Virginia home. "If even one person tells you that name, that word you used, offends them, then that's enough. That should be enough."

She said as much when she was asked about the name at a party several months ago by former Washington Post sports reporter Leonard Shapiro.

Since the 2013 symposium, hosted by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, one influential entity after another has come out against the team name: President Barack Obama, sports broadcasters, civil rights groups, Native American leaders, religious organisations, former players and a federal judge.

In May, 50 US senators sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell calling for a name change, and last month, the US Patent and Trademark Office cancelled six of the team's registered trademarks, declaring the word "redskin" disparaging.

But team officials have shown no indication of budging from their embrace of the name, and on Tuesday, a team spokesman was dismissive of Wright's comments. Team owner Daniel Snyder and those who work for him have consistently defended the name, relying mostly on two arguments. Not all, or even most, Native Americans are offended by it, they have said, pointing to a 2004 poll and supportive letters from fans with indigenous roots. They have also spoken repeatedly about the team's history.

"Our past isn't just where we came from - it's who we are," Snyder wrote in a letter to fans in October, citing the team's name change from "Braves" to "Redskins" under Marshall. "After 81 years, the team name 'Redskins' continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come. We are Redskins Nation and we owe it to our fans and coaches and players, past and present, to preserve that heritage."

Wright said she understands Snyder's deep feelings for the team and the memories he has of attending games with his father as a boy. She, too, sat in the stands as a child, cheering for burgundy and gold. She still attends games with her grandson, despite her antipathy toward the name.

"People act very surprised when they hear me talk about this," Wright said. "They say, 'You really feel that way? But it's history?' Well the team is not going away. All of their stats and all of their games are still there."

But times have changed since her grandfather, a laundry store magnate, bought the team for $2,500, she said. Marshall is known for being the last NFL franchise owner to integrate his team and doing so only after being threatened by the federal government. Wright said people can pick over whether as a member of the Southern elite, her grandfather was more racist than the next man, but she said his anti-integration stance was a business decision. He was warned by the networks that integrating the team would cost the team its Southern television audience, she said.

Wright said she is not sure whether her grandfather, who was a collector of American Indian memorabilia, was aware of opposition to the team's name. He had a stroke in 1963 and died in 1969. It wasn't until the early 1970s that schools such as Stanford University began dropping Native American references from their mascot names.

"I think people of his social status back then had no idea they were running around harming people," Wright said. She said she didn't recognise the racist nature of the team's name until watching a documentary in the 1980s that addressed that term and others. "Then I started to hear more. Once your eyes and ears are open to these things, it's the truth. You can't hide anymore."

On Tuesday, the Center for American Progress released a report detailing how such team names harm American Indian and Alaska Native youths, contributing to hostile learning environments and low self-esteem. In the report, one young Native American describes how because a rival high school has "Redskins" as its mascot name, he has to hear his friends yell, "Kill the Redskins!" and, "Send them on the Trail of Tears!"

Wright said her interest in the matter grew after finding out that her husband's grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee. On a glass coffee table in their living room sit books with the titles "Native Universe" and "Visions of the First Americans."

A freelance writer and publisher of the online magazine Whisk and Quill, Wright began contributing articles to Indian Country Today after her husband subscribed to the publication. But none were about the team's name, and she doesn't believe that her editors ever made the connection between her and her grandfather. The publication is owned by the Oneida Indian Nation in New York, which launched a national radio ad campaign against the team's name.

Team spokesman Tony Wyllie seized on that connection and pointed to an article Wright wrote in the 1980s about the name's origins. "We are aware that Jordan Wright has recently changed her long-held position on the Redskins name," he said. "However, we do know from her bio that she has been paid by the newspaper Indian Country Today, which is owned and operated by the Oneida tribe, the most vocal critics of the Redskins name. So her change of heart is consistent with her employment choices."

Before agreeing to an interview with The Washington Post, Wright said she spoke only once at length about the issue in a public forum. It was around 2000, and she stood in front a civic group at the Belle Haven Country Club, in Northern Virginia, sharing her thoughts about a possible name change.

"They were angry," she said of the audience. "They jumped right out of their seats. That was the first clue that maybe I shouldn't say anything."

The Washington Post

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