If you need to send your fans letters, you are probably doing something wrong. Dan Snyder, owner of Washington’s football team, whose name is racist toward Native Americans, on Monday night released his second letter in the past six months. His first letter, published in October, staunchly defended the team name, citing polls of Native Americans and the rich heritage of the football team itself. The second letter disclosed that he and his staff have spent the past four months criss-crossing this great country of ours and meeting with Native Americans and hearing from them in their own, apparently italicized words. Snyder was shocked, shocked to learn that Native Americans are disproportionately impoverished, alcoholic, and disadvantaged.
Look, see, here is Snyder and a few Native Americans who are also fans of Snyder’s team.
As a result of his road trip, Snyder has already begun charitable acts toward Native Americans, and on Tuesday will announce the formation of—and here I am going to violate this magazine’s editorial policy, which is not to print the team’s name—the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. (If your first thought is that, if Snyder really thinks the name is kosher, then it should be called the Washington Redskins Redskins Foundation, you are not the only one.) Snyder cast this turn partly as the fulfillment of an obligation: “It’s not enough to celebrate the values and heritage of Native Americans,” he wrote. “We must do more.” But he also slyly situated himself against the devious straw man who insists that changing the team’s name is enough: “In speaking face-to-face with Native American leaders and community members,” he also wrote, “it’s plain to see they need action, not words.” Definitely action, but anything but words!
Snyder will doubtlessly undertake real action. According to his letter, he has already distributed over 3,000 winter coats to several Midwestern tribes, and also purchased a new backhoe for the Omaha Tribe, although that backhoe subsequently failed two preseason conditioning tests (kidding). Those who want to criticize Snyder—who, let’s be clear, is being unbelievably cynical, and probably following the bipartisan advice of Frank Luntz and Lanny Davis—find themselves in the somewhat uncomfortable position of arguing that these actions do not speak loudly enough to drown one word out.
Is this a clever act of jiu-jitsu that, months and years from now, will be seen as having gotten Snyder out of the corner his stubbornness had previously trapped him in? Or did he just make a significant concession that has led him one step closer to changing the name? Many will say it’s the former. I say it’s the latter.
It is instructive to compare the October letter to this one. October’s letter was fixated on defending the name. But just as important are the terms on which it was defended. Snyder cited two polls purporting to show majority acceptance of the name. But the heart of the letter was extolling what the name celebrates. And what the name celebrates is … the team:
Our franchise has a great history, tradition and legacy representing our proud alumni and literally tens of millions of loyal fans worldwide. We have participated in some of the greatest games in NFL history, and have won five World Championships. We are proud of our team and the passion of our loyal fans.
So when I consider the … name, I think of what it stands for. I think of the … traditions and pride I want to share with my three children, just as my father shared with me—and just as you have shared with your family and friends.
In the October letter, the feelings of Native Americans are literally an afterthought. To wit: “We cannot ignore our 81 year history, or the strong feelings of most of our fans as well as Native Americans throughout the country.” In that letter, actually existing Native Americans might as well not actually exist.
However, Monday’s letter is entirely about real Native Americans (excuse me, Original Americans). We hear from them. We learn about them. We are no longer celebrating the “values and heritage” of the team. Rather, we are celebrating Native Americans themselves.
Why the change of heart? It could be pure gamesmanship. After all, since Snyder’s last letter was published, the Washington football team went 2-10. More likely, Snyder and his advisors decided that the best strategy is to change the conversation.
However much Snyder is paying for his advice, though, it’s too much. This change of the conversation has come at irreparable cost to Snyder’s cause of keeping the team’s name. Native Americans are no longer abstractions. Snyder has acknowledged their existence—has, in fact, flung their continued existence in our faces. How can he possibly keep the name now? After all, the corollary to the fact that Native Americans need our help isn’t that they should no longer be demeaned by this name. The corollary to the fact that Native Americans need our help is that they also should no longer be demeaned by this name.
I’ll set the over-under for a name change at five years. And I’ll take the under.