Washington Redskins feel heat in Native American mascot debate

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The Redskins’ mascot. (AP Photo)

The Washington Redskins and the University of Utah are among those sports teams asked to reconsider using Native American references for their mascots.

Using Native American names and images as sports mascots has been a topic of controversy in the United States since the 1960s. Many athletic and academic organizations believe using native names by non-native teams is inappropriate.

In March 2007, the American Sociological Association called for a “discontinued use of the Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sports.” It stated that “social science scholarship has demonstrated that the continued use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport harm Native American people in psychological, educational, and social ways.”

Despite the push from activist groups, public opinion surveys show the majority of U.S. citizens believe organizations should keep the names of sports teams. Many sports directors in positions of authority believe the names should stay as well.

“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use all caps,” Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, said in an interview with USA Today in May 2013.

In a letter Synder released to fans shortly after the interview, he apologized to those who were offended by the name, but reminded people that to him the name was a matter of pride in his team’s history.

“I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name. But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too,” Snyder said, citing several polls conducted in recent years that show that a majority of people do not want the name changed.

Synder and the Washington Redskins, along with other teams that use Native American names and mascots, may be eating their “never” phrase.

In 2005, the NCAA took a step toward change by banning Native American mascots in all NCAA tournaments, saying they were “hostile and abusive.” This ban only applied to NCAA-sponsored events and tournaments, and although they commented that they found certain mascots “unacceptable,” it was each individual institution’s choice to decide what it did outside of the NCAA tournament.

However, this ban had a waiver system that schools could go through to get permission from the tribes their mascots represented to continue using the Native American name and mascot.

The University of Utah and Florida State went through the waiver system in order for their mascots to be allowed at NCAA-sanctioned events and tournaments. The University of Utah met with the Ute tribe, which agreed to let the school continue using the mascot. In 2013, it met with tribal leaders about again renewing the mascot. Leaders said they were furious at the thought of Utah changing it.

“We feel other institutions throughout our state have largely ignored our people, the Ute Indians and our Ute heritage,” said members of the Ute Tribal Alumni Association of the U in a letter to the school’s board of trustees. “To eliminate the drum and feather logo, and eventually the Ute name, this our affiliation with the university, would be worse than disrespectful; it would be cruel.”

This is not to say there are no stipulations in the agreement. According to BYU law professor and Indian Law expert Michalyn Steele, Utah agreed to issue guidelines on fan behavior. This was an attempt to prevent some disrespectful fan behavior toward the Utes. Steele understands the complexity of this issue and addressed it in a morning show for BYU law.

“You have, on the one hand, people asking for an increase in human decency,” Steele said. “On the other hand, you have: Well, it’s a fun tradition and we enjoy it, so how dare you criticize it.”

Florida State was also removed from the list of school with banned mascots after proving it had a positive relationship with the Seminole tribe. The tribe even helped the university create the costume for the Chief Osceola mascot. Both universities had to show that their Native American names and mascots weren’t insulting to the respective tribes each school represents.

Despite some schools’ positive relationships with tribes, by 2013 more than two-thirds of Indian Mascots and logos had been discarded from colleges and universities, leaving fewer than 1,000 remaining.

At the professional level, the battle rages on, with the Washington Redskins on the hot seat. Several prominent figures, including President Obama, have condemned the name as a derogatory slur against Native Americans. In May, a letter urging NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to change Washington’s team name was signed by fifty senators.

Senator Marco Rubio had a different view.

“The decision is up to the owner to make,” Rubio said in an interview. “He should in no way be forced. He’s in the PR business; he has to sell tickets. And ultimately he’s going to face accountability from a business perspective for whatever choice he makes.”

According to a recent poll conducted by Langer Research, 71 percent of Americans favor keeping the name. However, this is down nine points from a year ago, when 78 percent supported the name. Still, it seems Snyder would face more backlash from the American people for changing the name than keeping it.

It will most certainly be a battle if Snyder wants to keep the name. In June, the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team’s trademarks, saying they were “disparaging to Native Americans.” The Redskins have appealed the 2-1 ruling and have said they are confident it will be overturned.

As the Redskins await this decision, they will keep their name and their Native American mascot, headdress and all. The debate continues to rage on, the mascot was chosen out of respect and deserves to stay, the other side believing it is the Redskins’ ethical responsibility to change their mascot. The Redskins will continue to take heat as long as their current mascot remains, but it might get even hotter if they succumb to the pressure and replace it.

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