WASHINGTON – Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, may not see the hypocrisy of decrying alleged anti-Semitism while owning an NFL team with a racist name, but the good news for Indians is that a growing portion of the media does.
The scene was set Feb. 2 for Natives to take notice of their defenders. On that day, lawyers for Snyder filed a lawsuit with the New York Supreme Court charging that the Washington City Paper, a weekly alternative free publication in the nation’s capital, had, among other offenses, published “lies” in a November cover story involving Snyder’s business dealings. Accompanying the article was a doctored photo of Snyder portraying him with a beard, horns, and bushy eyebrows penciled in.
The graphic was apparently of great offense to the seemingly thin-skinned owner. “In its cover art, the Washington City Paper depicted the Jewish Mr. Snyder in a blatantly anti-Semitic way, complete with horns, bushy eyebrows and dollar signs,” his lawyers wrote in the suit. “This is precisely the type of imagery used historically, including in Nazi Germany, to dehumanize and vilify the Jewish people and associate them with a litany of libels over the last 2,000 years.”
Total damages to Snyder, according to the court papers: $2 million.
The newspaper’s staffers, meanwhile, have defended themselves, noting that religion wasn’t mentioned in the article, and adding in a blog post that “many staffers” who edited the story were Jewish. Their argument: They meant to portray Snyder as a devil and nothing more. The editor and publisher of the publication have also said they have been more than willing to run corrections or a response, but Snyder hasn’t been willing to offer any. So they published his lawsuit instead.
Soon after that publishing, Indians learned they had some friends in new places, including snarky New York blogs, wonky policy publications, and popular sports rags nationwide.
“[S]hut the fuck up Dan Snyder, you own the most sickeningly racist relic of a brand in all of professional sports,” wrote Hamilton Nolan for Gawker in a piece titled, “Rich Idiot Thinks He Deserves $2 Million for This 'Anti-Semitic' Picture.” “How do you even sleep at night, you whore?” The blog also highlighted the following comment in a special post later in the day: “How would I feel if someone – nay, an entire organization – insulted my people by using a racist epithet and caricatures of Native Americans like me? And then refused to do anything about it when repeatedly asked to change it and even sued to do so? Huh. Let's see. I think what I'd do is tell the jackass who owns the organization to go fuck himself.”
Over at The Nation, usually knowing for its complex policy pieces, Dave Zirin continued the theme: “Also, lest we forget, Dan Snyder owns a team whose name and logo are a celebration of the genocide of our Native American brothers and sisters. Every Sunday the Redskins take the field, their namesakes' memory is slandered and suffering celebrated. If Dan Snyder was really an opponent of genocide, he'd change the name of his team. Until that happens, this incident reveals him to be worse than an insensitive dullard. It marks him as a hypocrite.”
Barry Petchesky, writing for the popular Deadspin sports blog, added another dimension to the hypocrisy of it all, noting that Snyder’s Six Flags company was alleged to have used stereotypes when recruiting Asian actors to work at its parks, asking for “Charlie Chan”-like behavior in a casting call. However, as the blogger noted, Snyder’s lawyer brushed those complaints aside in a letter to the City Paper, indicating the complaints from Asians were not as important as his charges of anti-Semitism. “No! You can’t put that aside!” admonished Petchesky. “That’s a hell of a lot more racist that doodling Devil horns on your photo, and you can’t cry foul on one and ‘put aside’ the other!”
The calls of support for Native Americans seemed to be everywhere. NPR, The Huffington Post, and many Facebook and Twitter messages lit up with a common message to Snyder: Change the name of the team, and quit being such a hypocrite.
It was a good day for many Indians who were proud to hear so many voices that, for a change, didn’t belong to themselves and finally got it.
But it was not always this way. When Suzan Shown Harjo, one of the lead Indian plaintiffs who has sued in federal court to try to get the Redskins trademark revoked, first filed suit in the early 1990s, many publications and the individuals who ran them had no idea that redskins was a bad word with a gory past. She routinely explained that historians have found the word was used by some non-Indians colonizers of the past as a way to quantify the number of Indians they had killed, and as time passed, the word became a way to derogatorily put Natives down. Meanwhile, all that history has been ignored by the Redskins owners for decades—and by many fans as well, who would ask Harjo why she wanted to fight a name that they said was meant to honor her people.
There was no honor in the name for Harjo, and she wanted people to understand that. When not working on the case, the Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee activist spent her time educating the press. In June 1999, she shared a chat with ESPN writer about the situation, explaining, “The r-word is the most derogatory thing Native Peoples can be called in the English language.” She shared similar messages with countless outlets throughout the past two decades.
As the case progressed, dozens of newspapers and publications nationwide began to stop using the word when referring to the team, instead calling it the Washington football team. And many non-Indian sports writers, Mike Wise of the Washington Post among them, have since shared their support for change. The Native American Journalists Association has complied many of these victories in its regular “Reading Red” report.
While there have been setbacks over the years involving the case, most recently in Nov. 2009 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an legal argument that would have helped the Indian plaintiffs get the trademark revoked, Harjo and her lawyers knew that they were fighting a battle not simply to be won in a courtroom. “We’re fighting a battle of public opinion—of perception,” lawyer Philip Mause explained in 2009. “At some point, the name will become so unpopular that they will have to change it out of sheer business sense.”
Today the fight goes on in in the legal sphere with a team of young Indian plaintiffs set to continue Harjo’s arguments in the courts. Several younger Indian plaintiffs, who range in age from 18 to 24, have been assembled and have filed a similar suit, Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, to challenge the offensive team name and logo. The hope is that they will one day have the legal victory that Harjo has long been seeking. The first of many steps will be to make their case before a board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The panel already ruled in favor of the older Indian plaintiffs in the late-1990s.
At the same time, the fight for public opinion will continue. And at least for the moment, it is easier.