Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder says respect goes both ways when it comes to the debate over the team's nickname.
The man who ultimately gets to decide whether the name stays or goes offered his thoughts on the matter Tuesday in a letter to season-ticket holders, the first time he has addressed at length the change-the-name campaign that has picked up momentum this year.
The tone of the letter suggests that no change is under consideration.
"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," the letter states. "But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too."
'The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honour.' - Redskins owner Dan Snyder
The letter recalls Snyder's experience when he attended his first Redskins game at age 6 and cites polls and anecdotal evidence that indicate support for the name from Native Americans. It also states that the original Boston Redskins had a Native American coach in the 1930s before the franchise relocated to Washington, even though research shows that it is unclear whether William "Lone Star" Dietz was an actual Indian or whether he stole the identity of a missing man from the Oglala Sioux tribe.
"The name was never a label," Snyder's letter states. "It was, and continues to be, a badge of honour."
While there have been groups calling for a name change for decades, a series of events this year has put the Redskins on the defensive like never before. Snyder has hired Lanny Davis, an adviser in the Clinton White House who specializes in managing political crises, as an adviser on the matter. The letter released Tuesday shows more sensitivity than the owner's last on-the-record comment on the topic, when he told USA Today in May: "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps."
In recent months, local leaders in Washington and some members of Congress have called for a name change, and some media outlets have stopped using the name. It is also the subject of a long-running legal challenge from a group of American Indians seeking to void the team's federal trademark protection.
Indian activist Suzan Shown Harjo, a major figure in the trademark case before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, was unimpressed with Snyder's letter. She disputed several points, including the reference to Dietz, whom she said is part of the team's "time-dishonoured history of putting up pseudo-Indians as part of their promotion."
Harjo also rebuffed an assertion by Snyder that the team has an obligation to its fans to preserve its heritage.
'Not all traditions are carried on forever'
"Part of that heritage and tradition is name-calling, belittling and maligning Native Peoples," Harjo said in an email to The Associated Press. "The n-word was traditional and had quite a heritage, too. Happily, not all traditions are carried on forever."
Last week, President Barack Obama told The Associated Press that he would "think about changing" the name if he owned the team. This week, the NFL said it will meet with representatives from the Oneida Indian Nation, which has been airing radio commercials pushing for a change. Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday that the league needs to "carefully listen" to critics of the name and "make sure we're doing what's right."
Like Harjo, Oneida representative Ray Halbritter differed with the interpretation of the team's history in Snyder's letter. Oneida said the team's nickname "was deliberately designed to denigrate people of colour."
"Unfortunately that ploy was successful," Halbritter said in a statement. "The marketing of this racial slur has had — and continues to have — very serious cultural, political, and public health consequences for my people and Native Americans everywhere. It is clear from Mr. Snyder's letter that he does not understand those consequences."
In the statement, Halbritter invited Snyder to take part in the tribe's upcoming meeting with the NFL.
Washington coach Mike Shanahan said he was glad that that Snyder "expressed exactly how he feels from an ownership standpoint."
Goodell has said that it is ultimately Snyder's call as to whether the name will be changed. For now, it appears the owner is not budging.
"I respect the opinions of those who disagree. I want them to know that I do hear them, and I will continue to listen and learn," the letter states. "But we cannot ignore our 81 year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country. After 81 years, the team name 'Redskins' continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come."