This week, the National Football League announced that it has scheduled a meeting as soon as next month with the Oneida Indian Nation, the organization that is leading the campaign against the nickname, which it says is racist.
“We respect that people have differing views,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Associated Press. “It is important that we listen to all perspectives.”
The meeting represents a shift. Up to now, the NFL and Mr. Snyder have presented a unified front, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in June calling the nickname "a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect," and reiterating last month that "ultimately, it is Dan [Snyder]'s decision."
But for a league that is hypersensitive about its public image – which avoided any whiff of controversy in its Super Bowl halftime shows for years after the infamous 2004 "wardrobe malfunction" – the negative attention generated by the battle over the Redskins nickname is a serious concern.
The question is: Is the upcoming meeting a sign that the NFL is about to abandon Snyder?
Experts have their doubts.
“In many ways the league is about managing a particular product and a particular experience, so they don’t want to lose the public,” says Richard King, a professor of comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University in Pullman and co-author of “Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy.”
“But the league is representative of the ownership and that includes [the Redskins]. Unless there are other owners thinking ‘Hey, this is getting bad for our business model,’ I wonder if the NFL has an incentive to change,” he says.
The NFL's invitation is more than what tribal officials have heard from Snyder. Through public statements, he remains steadfast in his refusal to change the name. In May, he told USA Today that the team “will never change the name.” “It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps,” he said.
Of course, this is not the first time a sports team, whether collegiate or professional, has received pressure to change nicknames or mascots. But in the collegiate ranks, many of the changes came only after the National Collegiate Athletic Association made it a priority in 2005.
In some cases, the switch was acrimonious. The NCAA threatened the University of North Dakota with sanctions if it did not drop its Fighting Sioux moniker. In 2012, North Dakota put the issue to state voters, who agreed to abandon the name and logo.
In recent months, the controversy over the Redskins name has gained momentum. Even President Obama, when asked by the Associated Press, weighed in this weekend, saying if he was the team’s owner he would “think about changing” the name.
“I don’t want to detract from the wonderful Redskins fans that are here … but I think all these mascots and team names related to Native Americans, Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it. And 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.
Obama’s statement “says a lot about the racial politics and institutional politics in the US,” says Professor King.
In the past, most name, mascot, or moniker changes have been confined to the collegiate and high school level. “Professional teams have been able to be above that fray because their constituencies and control boards are different, and there hasn’t been quite the push,” he says.
Indeed, while indigenous groups have long complained about elements of the Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, and Atlanta Braves – where the “tomahawk chop” is performed every game by fans – these franchises have maintained the integrity of their brand.
The reason that professional franchises are often immune is the increased money and prestige. In August, Forbes ranked the Redskins as the third most valuable franchises in the NFL at $1.7 billion, behind only the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots. More than 8 percent of revenue comes from branding.
However, there is evidence from the collegiate world that the economic loss from a name change might not be as severe as once thought. Schools that change their name suffer an immediate financial shortfall in the first or second year but recover soon after, according to May study by Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta.
Shifts “away from a Native American mascot yields positive financial returns” over time, it found. “The key implication is that switching away from a Native American mascot has no long-term negative effect on brand equity.”
The NFL’s current overture to the Oneida Indian Nation may boost advocates who want the Redskins to scrap their name, but King says the league will likely leave it up to the team to decide.
Others agree. The NFL wants to be seen as sensitive to the complaints, but will likely not order a name change simply because the fans – which represent the majority of consumers of their product – have not expressed similar outrage as the indigenous groups, says Frank Shorr, director of the Boston University Sport Institute. If the Redskins do change their name, the NFL will want it at least to look voluntary.
“Ultimately it’s going to come from the team itself,” Mr. Shorr says.