November 5, 2015; Washington Post
In Washington, D.C., the biggest sports controversy day-in and day-out is whether 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III should start at quarterback for the local NFL franchise owned by Internet media mogul Dan Snyder. For most Washingtonians, the fate of RGIII is sadly more important than the racial slur that the team wears as its name and moniker despite the protests of Native American organizations across the nation. But now, certainly without intending to, Griffin has become a bit player in the racial name controversy.
Many sports icons, including third-stringers like RGIII, have endorsement deals with sports clothing and equipment manufacturers. RGIII’s is with Adidas, which just pledged to offer “design resources” to American high schools that want to change their logos or mascots “from potentially harmful Native American imagery or symbolism.”
Ray Halbritter, the leader of the Oneida Nation, which has been in the forefront of Native American groups fighting with Snyder and the NFL over the name of the Washington DC franchise, hailed the Adidas decision as a “tremendous display of corporate leadership.” In a written statement, Halbritter, joined by Jackie Pata of the National Congress of American Indians, said that Adidas had raised the bar for other corporations on issues of inclusivity and cultural respect.
“Today’s announcement is a great way for us to offer up our resources to schools that want to do what’s right—to administrators, teachers, students and athletes who want to make a difference in their lives and in their world,” says Adidas head of global brands Eric Liedtke, who made the announcement at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C. “Our intention is to help break down any barriers to change—change that can lead to a more respectful and inclusive environment for all American athletes.”
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Snyder, of course, is having none of it. Despite strong recommendations from the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association that racially disparaging teams like the one he uses for his NFL franchise in Washington have negative effects on native and non-native populations, Snyder believes he knows better. In a filing to defend his team’s exclusive trademark of the R-word, Snyder’s team challenged the ruling of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by submitting a list of other disparaging epithets that the PTO has approved as trademarks. Our personal favorite in the list was “Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them” wallets.
Unlike the Washington NFL team name, none of the names on the list submitted by Snyder’s representatives are known to be the trademarks of billion-dollar companies like Snyder’s Washington, D.C. franchise. The list seems to be the equivalent of saying, “Plenty of people say bad things, so our use of a racially disparaging epithet about Native Americans is OK, too,” a strategy that Esquire magazine described as “a brilliant legal strategy borrowed from middle school: point fingers at everyone else.” As a matter of history and culture, Snyder’s demeaning approach to the use of the R-word is not much different than the position of those who think the N-word’s racially charged meaning is a thing of the past.
Snyder’s Washington NFL franchise also tried a second tack to challenge to the Adidas decision: “The hypocrisy of changing names at the high school level of play and continuing to profit off of professional like-named teams is absurd,” Snyder team spokesman Maury Lane said in a statement that was quoted by the Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox. “Adidas makes hundreds of millions of dollars selling uniforms to teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and the Golden State Warriors, while profiting off sales of fan apparel for the Cleveland Indians, Florida State Seminoles, Atlanta Braves and many other like-named teams.”
As an email we received yesterday from Change the Mascot pointed out, unlike team names such as “Braves,” “Seminoles,” “Warriors,” “Blackhawks,” and “Indians,” “only the R-word is a dictionary-defined racial slur,” and that is the name that Snyder has pledged to never relinquish. Besides eventually learning the meaning of the concept of “racial slur,” Snyder will come to realize that his pledge to “never” change the racial slur as his team’s name will transition to “eventually” and in due time to “now.” As Adidas knows, Snyder is on the losing side of this racial controversy.—Rick Cohen