THE BLOG
01/29/2015 05:25 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

The NFL 'Playbook' for Defending Racism Against American Indians

Helen H. Richardson via Getty Images

It's time for us all to adopt a new playbook that truly honors American Indians.

It's time for the Washington football team to change its name.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, a civil rights group dedicated to promoting diversity and equality in the National Football League (NFL), has joined the growing chorus of protests against the Washington football team's ongoing use of a dictionary defined racial slur as its name and stereotypical caricature as its logo. The Alliance recently released a statement that described a meeting they held with the Washington team to discuss changing the team's name and logo in which the Alliance was "shouted down" by Washington team representatives. The Washington team's inappropriate response is unfortunately consistent with the "playbook" that the Washington team and NFL continues to use to defend the offensive and harmful team name and logo of the Washington team. This "playbook" appears to be as follows:

1. Reframe a dictionary- and government-defined racial slur as a term of "honor." In his letter to fans, Dan Snyder claims that the "R-word" is a "badge of honor." NFL spokesperson Adolpho Birch further stated, "It's not a slur." In actuality, the Washington football team's name is defined as a racial slur in almost every modern dictionary. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team's trademark because the term was found to be "disparaging."

The NFL further went to claim that the team name was made to honor then-coach William "Lone Star" Dietz. Yet this claim of "honor" ignores statements from the former team's owner George Preston Marshall, arguably the most infamous segregationist in sports history. In a 1933 interview Marshall stated, "The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name R*dskins." More, the notion that this term was a badge of honor ignores several examples of racially insensitive behavior including the use of the term "scalp 'em" in the original Washington team song, and the frequent use of red face and appropriation of American Indian headdresses at Washington football games.

2. Disregard protests of Native Americans and civil rights leaders. Several major American Indian organizations including the National Congress for the American Indian (NCAI), National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) and Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) have issued public statements condemning the use of the "R-word." In addition to the Fritz Pollard Alliance, major civil rights groups such as the NAACP, Leadership Conference for Human and Civil Rights, The National Council of La Raza and the Anti-Defamation League have all condemned the practice of using this slur. Recently, DeMaurice Smith, the Executive Director of the NFL Player's association, said that the Washington team name conveyed "racial insensitivity." As of this moment, the Washington team and NFL have not publicly acknowledged that almost every major American Indian organization such as the NCAI, the oldest and most representative organization of American Indians, have repeatedly issued formal statements that the Washington team name is an offensive slur.

However, there have been at least three instances when representatives of the Washington team have claimed American Indian support, only to have this claim contradicted. Washington's team owner Daniel Snyder has asserted that the Red Cloud School was consulted and the school subsequently approved the use of the "R-word;" the Red Cloud School made a public statement denying any involvement in determining the Washington football team name and stating that it also considers the "R-word" a demeaning racial slur. Similarly, team representative and former Washington player Mark Moseley claimed that the Alabama Coushatta tribe was supportive of the "R-word;" the Alabama Coushatta tribe promptly responded, saying that they support the NCAI efforts to oppose the Washington name. Further, whereas Washington football team representatives insisted that no American Indians protested the name in visits to American Indian reservations, Jim Enote, the director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico, said he spoke with Snyder last November about his displeasure with the team name, only to be rebuked by Snyder.

3. Ignore science showing harmful effects of racism against American Indians. Professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, American Sociological Association and American Counseling Association, have issued statements that the use of "Native" team names and imagery is detrimental to children's mental health and development. Experimental laboratory studies demonstrate causal effects that the presence of American Indian sports team logos results directly in lower self-esteem and lower mood among American Indian youth; longitudinal studies show that discrimination predicts increased depression and substance abuse in American Indian youth over time. More, studies also show that exposure to American Indian sports names and logos activate negative stereotypes of American Indians among non-American Indians.

While polls should not be a basis for determining policy, the Washington team's disregard of Native American opinion also comes in the selective reporting of polls. In 2004, the Annenberg Center issued a poll that found that 90 percent of American Indians were not "bothered" by the Washington team use of "R-word." This poll has been criticized on almost every level, most notably the lack of evidence that those who identified as American Indians were in fact American Indian. A more recent poll this year that required evidence of tribal membership to participate found that 67 percent of the respondents thought the "R-word" was a racial slur. Another recent poll shows that the majority of Americans would not feel comfortable using the "R-word" when directly speaking with an American Indian. Further, The Washington team and NFL continue to report the 2004 poll without acknowledging these new polls.

4. "Don't we have more important things to worry about?" Defenders of the Washington team name often dismiss opposition to the team name as an example of political correctness gone awry. Further, those supporting the team often presents a false dichotomy whereby American Indians should be forced to tolerate racial slurs because they suffer from other "more pressing" issues such as poverty. In response to a letter from American Indian U.S. Congressman Tom Cole urging the NFL to support a name change for the Washington team, team representative Tony Wyllie responded by saying, "Don't they have more important issues to worry about?"

Not only do these statements contradict the social science demonstrating the harmful effects of racism, but they also contradict how the NFL handles issues of racism among other groups. Keep in mind that the NFL can act decisively against bullying and racism without needing to consult polls. Imagine the appropriate public outrage if the NFL decided not to sanction Rich Incognito for his use of racial slurs against Jonathan Martin because the African American population has "more important things to worry about."

The good news is that fewer and fewer people are buying into the Washington team and NFL "playbook." Overall, claims made by the Washington team on its website have been labeled as mostly untrue by independent evaluators like the Washington Post. Research shows that broadcasters' use of the "R-Word" on television in 2014 declined by 27 percent. The largest protest in history occurred in Minnesota, drawing thousands of people. The Washington team also saw the largest home game protest of the name in the history of the team.

The way that the NFL has treated the American Indian community and civil rights organizations such as the Fritz Pollard Alliance that have called for an end to the racist Washington team name and logo is atrocious. And just like the controversy regarding its handling of concussions and domestic violence, the NFL playbook of defending racist slurs against American Indians gives the impression that it does what it wants, when it wants, regardless of who gets hurt.

It's time for a new playbook.

Change the name.