Sports

President Obama Weighs In On Washington Redskins’ Name Controversy

Nearly 4 In 5 Americans Don't Think The Team Should Change Its Name
A Washington Redskins flag is waved on January 6, 2013. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

A Washington Redskins flag is waved on January 6, 2013. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — President Barack Obama says he would “think about changing” the Washington Redskins’ name if he owned the football team as he waded into the controversy involving a word that many consider offensive to Native Americans.

Obama, in an interview with The Associated Press, said team names such as the Redskins offend “a sizable group of people.” He said that while fans get attached to the names, nostalgia may not be a good enough reason to keep them in place.

“I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things,” he said in the interview, which was conducted Friday.

An avid sports fan, Obama said he doesn’t think Washington football fans are purposely trying to offend American Indians. “I don’t want to detract from the wonderful Redskins fans that are here. They love their team and rightly so,” he said.

But the president appeared to come down on the side of those who have sharply criticized the football team’s name, noting that Indians “feel pretty strongly” about mascots and team names that depict negative stereotypes about their heritage.

Email messages to team spokesman Tony Wyllie and general manager Bruce Allen were not immediately returned Saturday.

In a statement released on Saturday evening Lanny Davis a team attorney said that the Redskins’ name was not intended to “disparage” or “disrespect” anybody.

“As a supporter of President Obama, I am sure the president is not aware that in the highly respected Annenberg Institute poll (taken 2004) with a national sample of Native Americans, 9 out of 10 Native Americans said they were not bothered by the name the “Washington Redskins.” The president made these comments to the Associated Press, but he was apparently unaware that an April 2013 AP poll showed that eight out of ten of all Americans in a national sample don’t think the Washington Redskins name should be changed.

“We at the Redskins respect everyone. But like devoted fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks (from President Obama’s home town ), we love our team and its name and, like those fans, we do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group. The name “Washington Redskins” is 80 years old – it’s our history and legacy and tradition. We Redskins fans sing ‘hail to the Redskins’ every Sunday as a word of honor not disparagement.”

Other professional sports teams have Indian names, including football’s Kansas City Chiefs and baseball’s Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians.

Numerous colleges and universities have changed names that reference Native Americans. St. John’s changed its mascot from the Redmen to the Red Storm, Marquette is now the Golden Eagles instead of the Warriors and Stanford switched from the Indians to the Cardinal.

The Redskins’ name has attracted a fresh round of controversy in recent months, with local leaders in Washington calling for a name change and some media outlets refraining from using the name. The name is the subject of a long-running legal challenge from a group of American Indians seeking to block the team from having federal trademark protection.

Congressional lawmakers have introduced a bill seeking the same goal, though it appears unlikely to pass.

“What a prudent and wise use of the bully pulpit,” Suzan Shown Harjo, a plaintiff in that case, said in an interview Saturday. “I am so glad that he said that and I hope that people hear a reasoned response from the president and will pay attention to this issue.”

Harjo said the issue “involves lots of hurt and pain and ongoing name-calling and bullying of our children that goes with this name. We just need to have an end to it.”

“There’s no such thing as a good stereotype, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how good people feel about it,” Harjo added. “It still has negative ramifications for our people.

“These are relics of the past. They should be consigned to museums and history books and people can feel good about them there,” she said. “But they should not be allowed in polite society.”

Opponents of the Redskins name plan to hold a protest Monday outside the NFL’s fall meeting in Washington.

Team owner Dan Snyder has vowed to never abandon the name. But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last month that the league should pay attention to those offended by the name — a subtle change in position for Goodell, who had more strongly supported the name in his previous statements this year.

Despite the controversy, an AP-GfK poll conducted in April showed that nationally, “Redskins” still enjoys wide support. Nearly 4 in 5 Americans don’t think the team should change its name, the survey found. Only 11 percent think it should be changed, while 8 percent weren’t sure and 2 percent didn’t answer.

Obama said he doesn’t have a direct stake in the Redskins debate since he’s not a team owner. But he hinted that might be part of his post-White House plans.

“Maybe after I leave the presidency,” he joked. “I think it would be a lot of fun.”

He added: “I’d probably look at a basketball team before I looked at a football team. I know more about basketball than I do about football.”

(TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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