Keeping Score

A Mysterious Defense of The Washington Redskins Name

Washington owner Dan Snyder has hired Lanny Davis, a veteran D.C. crisis manager, to vouch for the team's nickname. In an interview, Davis' logic falls short.

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Alex Brandon / AP

FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012 file photo, Zena "Chief Z" Williams, unofficial mascot of the Washington Redskins, signs autographs during fan appreciation day at the Redskins' NFL football training camp at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va., Aug. 4, 2012.

The fight over the Washington Redskins name has intensified this week. It started, actually, last Friday, when President Obama weighed in during an interview with the Associated Press. “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team–even if it had a storied history–that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” Obama said.  Veteran D.C. PR-rep and crisis manager Lanny Davis — whose prior clients have included Bill Clinton during the impeachment process, a dictator from Equatorial Guinea, and an Ivory Coast strongman, as well as the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness and the National Women’s History Museum — responded in a statement: “As a supporter of President Obama, I am sure the president is not aware that in a highly respected Annenberg Institute poll (taken in 2004) with a national sample of Native Americans, 9 out of 10 Native Americans said they were not bothered by the name ‘Washington Redskins.’

The NFL said it will meet next month with Native American leaders to discuss the name. On Wednesday, Snyder released a letter to fans and season ticket holders, in which he defended the name, but softened his tone. “I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name. 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,” Snyder wrote. Back in May, Snyder told USA Today: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

Davis, now the co-founder of the Purple Nation Solutions public affairs firm, hit the airwaves to rep Snyder’s perspective: one radio interview, on 106.7 The Fan in D.C., was particularly telling. During the discussion, as the Washington Post reported, Davis did admit that Snyder’s “you can use caps” comment had “the wrong flavor” to it.

(MORE: Washington Redskins owner Dan Synder says he won’t change the team’s nickname)

He then used very suspect logic to defend the team.

The interviewer, Holden Kushner, and Davis are both Jewish. At one point, Kushner asked Davis: “how can you not be more sympathetic to [the Native American] cause, given that we’ve been through [discrimination, persecution] a lot?”  Davis’ response:

“I am,” Davis said. “For me, it doesn’t matter what the number is; if you’re offending someone, you should be sorry for that. Especially a religious or ethnic group that’s been persecuted over the years, the way that Native Americans have. Shame on American history, what we did to Native Americans, we being the white man. And Jews have a history of persecution; for goodness sakes, the Holocaust. So I couldn’t agree with you more; we have to be respectful of every injured feeling, and it’s not a quantity.”

End of discussion, right? Clearly, the Redskins name offends “someone”: according to the decade-old Annenberg poll Davis himself cited in his response to Obama, 9% of Native Americans didn’t support the name. There’s no reason to think that the Native Americans who say they are offended aren’t actually offended. What do the average Native Americans have to gain by lying about their feelings? It’s not like they’d receive some kind of economic windfall if the Redskins changed their name. The benefit is purely psychic. Their offense is wholly believable, and understandable. And as Davis says, “we have to be respectful of every injured feeling, and it’s not a quantity.” Change the name — like other sports teams have done — problem solved.

Here comes the but:

“But that doesn’t mean a name of the team that’s 80 years old should be changed,” he continued. “We can be open and kind, to soothe people’s feelings, and certainly not diminish it, even if it’s just one. And that’s all Roger Goodell meant by his statement, is that we have to be sensitive and aware that people’s feelings are at risk here, even if it’s offending one person.”

So we have to be sensitive to the one offended person, but can’t change the name, because it’s been around for a long time.  Sorry, offended person. We love the name too much, for too long.

More Davis:

“But to change a name and then to have selective outrage, with Congress and tribes and press conferences just mentioning the Redskins, and not mentioning the Tomahawk Chop?” Davis said. “For goodness sakes, I’m a Washington Nationals fan. When I see the Atlanta Braves [fans] doing that Tomahawk Chop, it irritates the heck out of me, but it’s not because I’m thinking that they intend to be disrespectful to Native Americans. It’s about irritating me as a Washington Nationals fan. So it’s just the selective outrage that I think is unfair.”

This is a classic PR tactic: deflect the issue at hand elsewhere. One problem is that the Tomahawk Chop, and the Redskins nickname, are very different things. The Tomahawk Chop is stupid, and some Native Americans take offense. But it’s a form of fan expression. Sure, the Atlanta Braves, and any other team, could try to ban the Tomahawk Chop in their stadiums. Such a policy would be very difficult to enforce. And, it puts teams in the tricky business of regulating speech.

A team has control over a team nickname. By keeping the Redskins name, Snyder is making an active decision to offend someone. He has the power to reverse that decision.

One more bit from Davis:

“But to get to your point, it’s not a matter of quantity. If people are offended, we should be respectful of that, care about that, and tell people we care about that. But also say, we just have to say to you that this is an 80-year-old name, we sing ‘Hail to the Redskins’ to honor the Native Americans, and it’s not a term of disrespect.”

Really? Fans sing “Hail to the Redskins” after a touchdown to “honor the Native Americans?'” And not because they’re pumped that the Redskins scored a touchdown?

Snyder hired Davis to spread his side of the story. In Davis’ own defense of the Redskins name, he’s shown it’s pretty indefensible.

(MORE: Native Americans Tackle Redskins At Press Conference)