3 Objections to Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation

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Redskin helmet

Daniel Snyder, the majority owner of the Washington, D.C. National Football League franchise, announced that he is creating the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.” Snyder has been under consistent criticism for his dead-set opposition to changing the name of the team despite vigorous and sustained opposition from some Native American leaders and even members of Congress, though he’s received the surprising backing of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Now, after four months of research into Native American attitudes about the name of the Washington team, Snyder has announced the creation of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. He said, in a letter posted on the team’s website, “The more I’ve heard, the more I’ve learned, and the more I saw, the more resolved I became about helping to address the challenges that plague the Native American community.”

Although he seemed to miss the chance to visit with Native Americans who didn’t live on reservations, Snyder seems to have stumbled into near-unanimous approval of his NFL team’s racially controversial name. “Most—by overwhelming majorities—find our name to be rooted in pride for our shared heritage and values,” Snyder’s letter said. Leaving aside whether Snyder’s visits might have been a bit choreographed to sidestep potential critics (even former Washington tight end Rick “Doc” Walker expressed misgivings with an announcement that suggested Snyder discovered unanimous support for the name among the tribes he visited), the concern here is about Snyder’s creation of a foundation in the wake of the name controversy. Here are three serious qualms about sudden Snyder’s philanthropic urge:

A philanthropic platform for distortion

It’s not clear how exactly he was hired, but Gary Edwards, the new CEO of the foundation, appeared on Washington’s sports talk radio station WTEM (the flagship station for the team, also owned by Snyder) to explain the foundation’s creation to Kevin Sheehan on Inside the Locker Room. Edwards, who claims he was introduced to Snyder by a neighbor of Bruce Allen, the team’s General Manager, last fall, offered an interesting explanation of the background of the disputed name of the team:

“Well, I think the majority, the large majority of the Native American community takes real honor and pride in the name ‘Redskins,’ and there’s a reason for that. You see a lot of people trying to change history and to change the meaning of that particular word, but for us, as Indians, we honor our elders. And our elders gave us that name of ‘Redskins’ when they were negotiating with the government…there were hundreds of tribes in the continental United States and each one had their own individual name like Winnebago, like Omaha…. Several different tribes, when they came to negotiate with the government, in order to show more power and unity, the tribal leaders looked at their skin as being red, proud to be red, called themselves ‘Redskins’ when they were dealing with the government, which they called ‘whiteskins’…and that’s how it was used as the beginning of it, and it is an honorable thing given to us by our forefathers…. A few people making a lot of noise should not be able to cause me to not honor my history or other Indians to not honor their history.”

The WTEM follow-up to this peroration was Sheehan’s asking how listeners might “get involved to help support the charity.” It wasn’t a tough interview for Edwards, whose explanation was never challenged with any of the lexicographical research of the origin and use of the term, such as this balanced and nuanced review by David Skinner in Slate late last year or this earlier analysis from the Washington Post. As the Post pointed out, citing University of Connecticut historian Nancy Shoemaker, “even if the Indians were the first to use it, the origin has no relationship to later use. What happened at the beginning doesn’t justify it today.” But with a foundation as a base, Snyder’s depoliticized view of the name of his NFL franchise now gets a philanthropic, 501(c) platform for the propagation of a positive, happy interpretation of the team’s name, which others view as offensive.

Buying support

WTEM reporter and host Steve Czaban has felt Dan Snyder’s wrath before. In 2006, Czaban conducted a Comcast SportsNet TV interview with then-quarterback Marc Brunell, twice asking Brunell if he thought his poor performance on the field warranted his being benched. Brunell complained to Snyder, Snyder complained to CSN, and Czaban was suspended for three weeks for having used an interview to “confuse and embarrass a guest.” Gary Edwards certainly wasn’t going to be confused by a hard question during his interview on Inside the Locker Room, but Czaban, whose show, The Drive (co-hosted with former tight end Chris Cooley) immediately followed, added nary a critical comment. In fact, Cooley lauded the announcement and suggested an important question wasn’t whether the foundation was a good idea, but what the news could have been (such as inviting Cooley back to the team). Long a defender of the team’s name, Czaban added something to the effect that, with the creation of the foundation, to “go against” the team’s name would mean being willing to shut down the new charity.

There it is, explained straightforwardly by Czaban: Question the derogatory meaning of the name and you risk the loss of Snyder’s charitable activity. Snyder’s letter announced that the new foundation seems to have been active before it was announced, providing 3,000 cold weather coats to several tribes, purchasing a new backhoe for the Omaha tribe, and working on 40 additional projects. A critic might suggest that this is a matter of Snyder’s buying support—or buying off criticism. GM Bruce Allen (the brother of former Virginia Republican governor and senator George Allen) reacted to the charge with high dudgeon: “If anyone says that, they’re insulting Native Americans,” he said. “And I would take offense at that on their behalf. They obviously don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Czaban, for his part, is a long-time critic of the “politically correct crowd (that) systematically and relentlessly attempts to shut down dissenting or ‘non-mainstream’ opinions on current problems in American society and politics today.” He was once suspended by WTEM itself for taking off on a transgender basketball player at Santa Clara, California’s Mission College, culminating his rant about the player with a discussion of the appropriate pronoun: “I think ‘it’ is the politically correct term.”

With a foundation, however, one can be as politically correct or incorrect as one wants, with the threat that challenging the foundation might deprive Native Americans of Snyder-provided coats, shoes, or backhoes. Let Snyder and Czaban be as politically incorrect as they may want, but to do it with the implicit threat that criticism jeopardizes charitable giving is obvious and obnoxious.

A charitable veneer for a racial epithet

“In speaking face-to-face with Native American leaders and community members, it’s plain to see they need action, not words,” Snyder’s letter said. It included statistics about the social and economic conditions faced by Native Americans around the nation, such as Native American poverty rates, health challenges, and access to basic water and sewerage infrastructure. These and other facts have been long known, certainly for the duration of Snyder’s ownership of the team, which he purchased in 1999. People have protested against the team’s name even before Snyder’s accession to the lead ownership position. If it took Snyder until this year to recognize the socioeconomic conditions of Native Americans, late is better than never.

But how might he have responded philanthropically, given that, according to Forbes, Snyder is worth $1.2 billion and the team worth $1.7 billion? Snyder could have used either of two existing philanthropic mechanisms for devoting some portion of his wealth toward Native American needs and causes. Snyder has long had a family foundation (the Snyder Family Foundation, EIN 52-2010676), established in 1996, but since 2008, relatively inactive. Around that time, Snyder shifted most of his institutional philanthropic activity from the family foundation to the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation, which reported $1,091,788 in total revenues and distributed $539,033 in grants per its 2011 Form 990 for the period ending March 31, 2012. No particular examples of Native American-oriented grants are immediately evident in the Snyder Family or Washington Redskins foundations’ grantmaking, but these Snyder-connected foundations could have been vehicles for a sustained program, as Snyder’s Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation implies it will do.

Alternatively, Snyder could have chosen to work through an established and recognized public foundation connected and responsible to the Native American community. Examples include the Potlatch Fund based in Seattle; the First People’s Fund in South Dakota; the Seventh Generation Fund based in Arcata, California; and the First Nations Development Institute, whose headquarters is in Longmont, Colorado, but has a regional office in Fredericksburg, Virginia, not far from the headquarters of Snyder’s NFL franchise in Ashburn, Virginia. But instead Snyder created a new foundation, bypassing his own as well as established Native American grantmakers. Control might be one reason, but the name of the foundation is the obvious reason, to connect the team with a philanthropic response to the needs of Native Americans.

“The mission of the Original Americans Foundation is to provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities,” Snyder’s letter said. “With open arms and determined minds, we will work as partners to begin to tackle the troubling realities facing so many tribes across our country. Our efforts will address the urgent challenges plaguing Indian country based on what Tribal leaders tell us they need most. We may have created this new organization, but the direction of the Foundation is truly theirs.”

Along with no financials, Snyder’s letter provided no information regarding the governance of the foundation that would ensure that it is truly “theirs.” A former special agent in the U.S. Secret Service, Edwards was the president of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association, and in Congressional testimony he is also identified as a member of the Native American National Advisory Committee for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, but it is unclear whether he has any experience as a grantmaker or any connection to recognized Native American grantmakers or those who might be on the nascent foundation’s board.

There is no question that Snyder has chosen to create a new entity rather than working through existing foundations or Native American grantmakers for a very clear purpose: to attach the name of his NFL franchise to philanthropic support for Native Americans. It may have been couched as sincere philanthropy, but a writer for USA Today quickly declared Snyder’s move as “such a scripted Beltway public relations move that it could have come from an episode of House of Cards.”

It appears that the scripted Beltway PR move isn’t working. According to an article in Indian Country, “The early reaction from Indian country: We’re not buying it.” Noting a variety of denunciations of Snyder’s move, the Indian Country article adds, “The letter is rife with self-satisfaction and misdirection, repeatedly emphasizing all the wonderful ways the Redskins, through the Foundation, might help Indian country, with no mention of the elephant in the room: The widespread objection in Indian country to the team’s name.”

Contrary to the implication of Snyder’s letter, helping address Native American conditions and ridding the nation of an offensive epithet as the name of an NFL franchise are not mutually exclusive or sequential. Expunging the team of the offensive name wouldn’t stop Snyder from concurrently devoting philanthropy to Native Americans. It’s a false argument.

Will U.S. philanthropy greet the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation as a legitimate addition to the nation’s charitable response to the needs of Native Americans? Or will philanthropy object to the adoption of a foundation structure for the purposes of giving a charitable veneer for maintaining a name that many Americans, Native Americans and others, consider objectionable, contrary to the view of Snyder and his foundation CEO? If Snyder’s gambit is as artificial and cynical as it appears, institutional philanthropy should protest that the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation is nothing more than a ploy by the owner of the third most valuable NFL franchise in the nation to maintain a name that many Americans view as racist and insulting to “original Americans.”