Sports Nut

Here, Take This Coat

Washington owner Dan Snyder’s cynical new effort to squelch the controversy over his racist team name.

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder looks on before a game between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins in December 2012 in Landover, Maryland.
Washington NFL team owner Daniel Snyder has created a new foundation to help Native Americans.

Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Dan Snyder wants to help Native Americans. In an open letter, the owner of the Washington NFL team describes the hardships faced by American Indian tribes and what he’s doing to help fix them. Snyder says his new foundation has distributed 3,000 winter coats, athletic shoes for Native American children, and a backhoe to Nebraska’s Omaha Tribe. “For too long, the struggles of Native Americans have been ignored, unnoticed and unresolved,” Snyder writes. “As a team, we have honored them through our words and on the field, but now we will honor them through our actions.” Oh, and by the way, the team is not changing its offensive nickname: “[O]ur team name captures the best of who we are and who we can be, by staying true to our history and honoring the deep and enduring values our name represents.”

At least Snyder is consistent. The owner, and his team, could commit to helping Native American causes while also admitting that the franchise’s long-standing nickname—a name that Slate will not print—must be changed. But that’s not how Snyder operates. When you’re stubborn, cynical, and rich, you don’t see the team’s nickname controversy and the plight of the American Indian as independent problems with independent solutions. Rather, they’re issues to be bundled and resolved together, with shoes and coats buying the goodwill that your franchise will never earn on its own.

Faced with increasing pressure to change his team’s nickname, the Washington owner has shown that he’ll throw whatever (or whoever) he can at what he perceives as a nettlesome PR problem. Last May, the team paraded around a man named Chief Dodson, a fellow described as “a full-blooded American Inuit chief” who explained that he and his fellow Native Americans considered the team’s nickname a “term of endearment.” A few days after Dodson’s pronouncement, Snyder boasted to USA Today, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple: NEVER—you can use caps.” One problem for Snyder, as Dave McKenna described in Deadspin: The chief was not a real chief.

A few months later, Snyder sent a letter to the team’s season-ticket holders. This time, he was more restrained, more respectful. “I’ve listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name,” he wrote. Even so, he insisted that the name “was, and continues to be, a badge of honor.” He continued, “In 1971, our legendary coach, the late George Allen, consulted with the Red Cloud Athletic Fund … and designed our emblem. … Several years later, Coach Allen was honored by the Red Cloud Athletic Fund. On the wall at our Ashburn, Virginia, offices is the plaque given to Coach Allen—a source of pride for all of us.” The problem this time: The Red Cloud Indian School had nothing to do with designing the team’s emblem and finds the team’s nickname deeply offensive.

The plus side of Snyder’s latest PR gambit is that Native Americans are at least getting something out of the billionaire. And we shouldn’t heap scorn on Snyder without noting that the Cleveland Indians have continuously refused to banish their big-toothed, big-nosed mascot Chief Wahoo to the garbage heap where it belongs.

It’s perfectly consistent, though, to feel warm and fuzzy about the winter coats while scorning the crassness of the man who hands them out. Though Slate no longer writes out the nickname, I must do so here to explain that Snyder has announced the formation of the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.” This is perhaps the most uncharitable name ever conceived for a charitable group, something akin to calling your organization “Kikes United Against Anti-Semitism.” If you want my money, he’s saying, you’re going to have to choke down my nickname along with it. This is the essence of Dan Snyder: He can’t do good works without shoving his badness in your face.

A recent Washington Post survey found that 37 percent of Post readers want the team to change its nickname. There are also polls that suggest that the majority of Native Americans don’t find the nickname offensive. But it shouldn’t be up to Dan Snyder to decide exactly how many people (and exactly which people) need to be insulted by a word—one that dictionaries label as a slur—before his team agrees to stop using it.

If you take the kind of listening tour where you actually listen to people, it’s easy to find Native American leaders—from the Oneida Nation, the Red Cloud Indian School, and elsewhere—who want the nickname banished forever. Rep. Betty McCollum, the co-chair of the House Native American Caucus, said on Tuesday that “Snyder wants to keep profiting from his team’s racist brand and use those profits to attempt to buy the silence of Native Americans with a foundation that is equal parts public relations scheme and tax deduction.”

Thanks to people like McCollum, Snyder’s money isn’t buying silence. No matter how much money he spends or what he spends it on, the pressure will stay on the Washington owner to do what’s right and change the name. But knowing Snyder, it’s safe to say the right thing is the furthest thing from his mind.