Jewish football owner under fire for ‘racist’ team name

Cowboys’ owner comes to defense of Redksin colleague, citing Jewishness as making him culturally sensitive; ADL calls for name change

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Washington Redskins training camp, 2011 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Keith Allison - CC BY-SA 2.0)
Washington Redskins training camp, 2011 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Keith Allison - CC BY-SA 2.0)

WASHINGTON — With the budget crisis apparently subsiding, Washington can get back to the controversy that kept America’s capital city atwitter – the name of the capital’s iconic but win-impaired football team, the Redskins. In the midst of the budget battle, the name debate took an unexpected twist as the owner of the team’s archrivals cited Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s Judaism as justification for his “sensitivity” to other minorities.

Snyder has been called out for his intransigence as he has steadfastly refused to change the team’s name to one that doesn’t offend a minority group. But Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, defended Snyder, arguing earlier this week that his Judaism precluded insensitivity.

“It would be a real mistake — a real mistake — to think Dan, who is Jewish, has a lack of sensitivity regarding anybody’s feelings,” Jones said during a question-and-answer session with fans on Sunday.

Some Jewish groups, however, disagree.

On Monday, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement in which it declared that “the time has come for responsible sports enterprises to seriously consider moving away from the use of hurtful and offensive names, mascots and logos.”

The statement singled out Washington — and Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians — for employing “offensive caricatures” in their team insignia.

“While it is not the intention of the fans, owners or leaders of sports franchises to offend, teams like the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians have a responsibility to be sensitive to the legitimate hurt that offensive names, mascots and logos cause,” the statement continued.

“This word is an insult. It’s mean, it’s rude, it’s impolite,” said Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, earlier this month at a news conference on the subject. He decried the presumption that while “other racial insults are out of bounds,” derogatory terms for Native Americans were still acceptable.

Snyder, who is an unpopular owner of a team that has had three winning seasons this millennium, has been under increasing pressure to change the name. Snyder has remained immobile on the subject, telling USA Today in May, “We’ll never change the name. It’s simple. NEVER.”

While a poll set to be released Wednesday argues that 59% of adults in the Washington region say that Native Americans have a right to feel offended if called “redskin,” the team remains the third most lucrative franchise in the NFL.

Major sports bloggers have committed to only referring to his team – which is limping along this season with a 1-4 record – as “Washington,” and US President Barack Obama said earlier this month that if he were the owner, he would “think about changing” the team’s mascot.

“I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things,” the president added.

This is not the first time that such a push has been made – the last big effort came in 1992, under the previous owner, Jack Kent Cooke. At that time, the Conference of American Rabbis wrote a letter asking Cooke to change the team’s name.

In the interim, the name has also attracted the attention of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. That organization published an open letter to Snyder in 2000, in which Rabbi David Saperstein complained that “the team’s name and logo are blatantly derogatory. ‘Redskin,’ as you must know, is a racial slur, invoking a sad history of US treatment of Native Americans. The team’s logo, an attempt to evoke the proud warrior spirit of Native American culture, is a cruel mockery of a culture all but destroyed.”

Snyder himself is no stranger to complaining about racism. In 2010, he sued the Washington City Paper for — among other alleged defamatory statements — publishing a picture of his face with pen-scribbled unibrow, goatee and horns. The City Paper said that it was meant to be reminiscent of the devil. Snyder’s attorneys — and the assistant director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center — argued instead that the City Paper was plying in anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Snyder ended up dropping the high-profile suit, which evoked the ire of sportswriters and local journalists who accused him of leveraging anti-Semitism and libel suits to silence criticism against his management of the team.

Snyder proudly mentions on his official biography that he has been inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, but he is not listed as an inductee in either the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in New York, or the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Netanya, Israel.

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