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NFL commissioner defends Redskins team name in letter to Congress

National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell defended the Washington Redskins' nickname in a letter to members of Congress who recently complained that t
Credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell defended the Washington Redskins' nickname in a letter to members of Congress who recently complained that the name is a racial slur and should be changed.

Goodell said in the June 5 letter addressed to Congressional Native American Caucus co-leaders Tom Cole and Betsy McCollum, that the name Redskins was never meant to denigrate or offend Native Americans, and "represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context."

The commissioner wrote that the Redskins originated as the Boston Braves in 1932, and that the name was soon changed not just to avoid confusion with the Boston baseball team of the same name, but to "honor" the team's head coach at the time. (The team played its first game in Washington in 1937, well after that coach—William Dietz—had already been fired.)

The letter also cited recent approval of the name by two American Indians, and argued that "Redskins" acts as "a unifying force":

For the team's millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America's most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.

Rep. McCollum responded with a statement calling the commissioner's defense "a statement of absurdity," adding that it was "another attempt to justify a racial slur on behalf of (Redskins team owner) Dan Snyder and other NFL owners who appear to be only concerned with earning ever larger profits, even if it means exploiting a racist stereotype of Native Americans."

That the name's negative racial connotations continues to be a subject of debate is curious, to be kind. While for Goodell the name "Redskins" may stand for the "strength, courage, pride and respect" of the men who wear the team uniform, the origins of the word are much more complicated and disturbing.

The Oxford Dictionary, which notes that word is "dated" and "offensive," traces the term to the 17th century use of vermilion face and body paint by the Algonquin and Delaware tribes. However, it has long been argued by scholars and activists that it is specific slang for the blood-red scalps of American Indian peoples butchered by white settlers and bounty hunters, and later sold or traded as currency. Suzan Shown Harjo of the Morning Star Institute, an indigenous-rights organization, told the Daily Beast in 2009 that "in some cases male scalps could be bought for 80 cents, women for 60 [cents], and children for even less. This term describes a heinous act."

In an open letter to the Redskins owner published Thursday, Nation sports editor Dave Zirin quotes Harjo:

"For most Native Americans, there's no more offensive name in English. That non-Native folks think they get to measure or decide what offends us is adding insult to injury."

In their complaint late last month, ten members of Congress argued that "Native Americans throughout the country consider the term ‘redskin’ a racial, derogatory slur akin the ‘N-word’ among African Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos."

ESPN host Michael Wilbon reiterated that position on Wednesday's edition of Pardon the Interruption, saying that what Goodell did was "gutless" and that he "sounds like a fool." That said, 79% of respondents to a May poll by the Associated Press believed that the Redskins should keep their name. Columnist Michael Tomasky was unimpressed, writing that "all [the poll] means is that 79 percent of Americans need a history lesson."

In that same June 1 post in The Daily Beast, Tomasky highlighted the background of the man who chose the team name: former Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, reputed to be one of the most notorious racists in American sports history (a "leading bigot," per the late Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich). Marshall resisted integrating his squad longer than any other NFL team; he famously said that "we'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites." And as Tomasky notes, the former owner indicated in his will that the posthumous foundation set up in his name should not direct funds to "any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form."

Snyder said in May that he "will never change the name of the’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps."

Still, ThinkProgress reported earlier this week that veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz will conduct a focus group for the NFL, including questions about whether or not the "Redskins" name is offensive. The NFL, which is listed among Luntz Global's corporate clients on its site, has denied involvement with the focus group. Some media stories have misstated the ThinkProgress report, alleging or implying that the Redskins have confirmed their involvement, which is not the case.

A call requesting comment from the Redskins by msnbc was not returned.

Update: "Melissa Harris-Perry" guest host Ari Melber added his voice to the debate on Saturday with an open letter to Commissioner Goodell. See it below.