An appropriate name for a sports team with a racist past

Some NFL officials are going to meet with Oneida Indian Nation representatives today over the continued use of the name Washington Redskins.

Efforts to force a name change may be paying off. The meetings were to be held in November but have been moved up as the long-simmering dispute over an offensive name begins to show flames.

“This is a defined term. It is derogatory, offensive and is a racial epithet,” Oneida CEO Ray Halbritter tells ESPN. “This is the word that was used when people were forced off their land at gunpoint when the motto was, ‘Kill the Indian, save the man.'”

The owner of the Redskins recently wrote an open letter to fans defending the name, insisting it represents “who we are and who we came from.”

That’s the problem. The Washington Redskins franchise is rooted in a racist past, and that’s leaving out the entire question of its name.

In 1961, for example, then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall warned team owner George Preston Marshall to hire a black player.  The Redskins were the only all-white team in the league. Marshall was one of three men who founded the National Football League.

“All the other teams we play have Negroes; does it matter which team has the Negroes?” he said.

Sportswriter Shirley Povich once wrote that the Redskins’ colors were “burgundy, gold and Caucasian.”

Marshall made his fortune in the laundry business, but he ended up owning TV and radio stations in the south and thought that hiring blacks on his football team would drive away advertisers and audiences.

“We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites,” he said.

Under pressure, especially from new commissioner Pete Rozelle, the Redskins eventually drafted their first black player — Ernie Davis. Davis, aware of the racist owner, demanded an immediate trade and got his wish.

When Marshall died in 1969, he reportedly left some money for the formation of a foundation with a restriction that it never be used for “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.” The clause got thrown out by a court and the foundation actually does some good these days for kids in the D.C. area.

A week from tomorrow, the Redskins will play the Vikings at the Metrodome and the agency that runs it has refused to get involved in the question of racism, turning aside requests the public address announcer and the scoreboard not use the name. They were concerned it would violate free speech rights.

A few newspapers, following the lead of the Star Tribune in the ’90s, aren’t so afraid. The San Francisco Chronicle, NBC reports today, has decided to drop the use of the name. The Star Tribune dropped its policy years ago.

It brings up the question of whether the proper way for journalists to confront racism is to merely pretend it’s not really there.

It’s really there.