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A decades-old controversy over the name of the Washington, D.C., football team has reached a tipping point. After years of public outcry condemning the name as a racial slur aimed at Native Americans, the organization is finally considering a change. Amna Nawaz reports and talks to Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone, who is producing a documentary on Native American mascots in sports.
A decades-old controversy over the name of the Washington, D.C., professional football reaching a tipping point today.
As Amna Nawaz reports, after years of public outcry condemning the name as a racial slur aimed at Native Americans, ownership is now considering a change.
That's right, Judy.
In a statement today, the team said it's launching a — quote, unquote — "thorough review" of their name. That came after major corporate backers FedEx and Pepsi called publicly for the change. Another sponsor, Nike, pulled team merchandise from its Web site.
For more on today's decision and what drove it, I'm joined by Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone. He's also producing a documentary called "Imagining the Indian," examining the fight against Native American mascots in the world of sports.
Kevin, welcome back to the "NewsHour."
There have been calls for years, we should point out, to change the Washington team's name. Let's start with your reaction. What do you make about the decision and statement from the team today?
Well, I am glad that we are finally at this press precipice once again. I hope this nickname issue can be shoved over the ledge.
I don't make much of the statement today. First of all, I am offended they would use the name in the statement and underscore it. I am offended that Dan Snyder — statement from him did not include, as a group of people to talk to, the Native Americans who are, in fact, offended by this and have been fighting for a name change for some 50 years now.
And I was a little bit disturbed as well by coach Rivera's statement which somehow included the military as being honored in all of this, which is baffling to me, because the only way you bring up the military in terms of Native Americans is with genocide, and the fact that the militias in this country back in Connecticut and Massachusetts, when the colonies were being founded, included bounties or issued bounties for the scalps of Native Americans being removed from their land.
And, in fact, that is what became known as redskins. So, it was tone-deaf to me in a lot of ways.
You mentioned the statement from team owner Dan Snyder.
I want to read to our viewers in full his quote from that statement.
"The process" — meaning this process they are now going launch — "allows the team to take into account not only the proud tradition and history of the franchise, also input from our alumni, the organization, sponsors, the NFL and the local community it is proud to represent on and off the field."
Kevin, I am old enough to remember back in 2013 when Snyder was asked about a name change, and he said, never, all caps, we will never change the name.
So, is that where the resistance was? Was it really just Snyder?
You know, there was certainly the fan base that he has very much made himself a part of, a fan base which, by the way, has not liked his leadership for the team in terms of winning games on the field.
But maybe around this nickname is the one place where he felt that the fans would support him. And there has been support from fans. But it is not about the fans. This is about humanity. This is about treating other people as equals. This is about no longer denigrating the Native people of this land.
And that is what this movement is all about. And I think it is really interesting that the shift now has been made by the Black Lives Matter movement, right? Because this started out weeks ago as a protest against police lethality against black men in this country with George Floyd's death.
And then it became an attack on Confederate iconology in this country. And then it became an attack on Christopher Columbus and his true history. And we have seen the removal of those statues. And Christopher Columbus is the one who really is representative when it comes to Native American genocide in this country.
And that relates — that's the seed of racism in this country which relates all the way back to this nickname.
Want to ask you about some of the external pressure, though, because we mentioned some of those corporate backers and their statements and their actions this week, FedEx saying, within days, we want the name changed.
Nike saying — or Nike, rather, looking like it took all the merchandise off of its Web site.
When you look at this decision from the Washington team's perspective, was it a moral one? Did they finally realize, OK, this is the right move? Or was it a market one?
This is absolutely a market move. This is hitting them in the pocketbook.
I would like to be able to say today that this was an altruistic move by this team, but, as you alluded to earlier in this report, this has been a struggle that has been going on for years. We thought that, in 2014 and 2013, that things were going to become different, that that was an opportunity for this team to move in another direction, get on the right side of history.
Dan Snyder could have done this when he purchased a team. You would think that Dan Snyder, a Jewish-American, would have some particular sensibility about the struggle that has been going on with this team's nickname with Native Americans for so many years.
But that hasn't happened. So this is strictly a reaction to forces that are pushing in this country right now, social justice forces. And particularly as it relates to this franchise, it is a pocketbook issue now, with these major sponsors starting to push back.
Kevin, in just the few seconds we have left, there are other pro leagues that have Native American mascots, MLB, NHL. Do you think this decision can spur change in those leagues too?
This is the top of this iceberg, an iceberg that, by the way, has been eroding beneath the water, as high school after high school and college after high college that have had these sorts of nicknames and these sorts of images, have removed them from their teams.
That is Kevin Blackistone, Washington Post columnist and producer of the upcoming documentary "Imagining the Indian."
Thank you, Kevin.
Thank you very much.
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