The news release from the Washington NFL club on Friday carried the date at the top: July 3, 2020.But it might just as well have used the title of that 1950s Johnny Mathis tune: “The Twelfth of Never.”
The notice said that the Washington football club would launch a thorough review of its team name. That means, in effect, the name is gone. Can you imagine, in today’s world, conducting a “thorough review” and deciding otherwise?
I covered the issue of Native American team names in sports for decades, beginning in Buffalo in the 1970s, and I covered controversies surrounding Washington’s NFL team name for USA TODAY for years before I retired last year.
In fact, I’m the one who coaxed that famous quote from the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder. Maybe you know it: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
That all-caps quote had a life of its own from the moment it was published, in 2013. Native Americans who oppose the team name bristled at its dismissive tone. Washington fans who support the name embraced it as a two-syllable rallying cry. And scores of news stories in the years since have cited it as the clearest expression of Snyder’s intransigence regarding a team name he says he’s loved since he was a boy.
Snyder rarely talks publicly about the name issue and did so briefly on that day in May only at the end of a longer interview with him and his wife, Tanya, about her being named Mother of the Year by the American Cancer Society. NEVER — in its uppercase iteration — wasn’t the high-handed message he sought to send that day.
“We will never change the name of the team,” Snyder told me at first. “As a lifelong Redskins fan, and I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.”
This quote, too, contained the word “never,” but its tone was measured and its content in line with things he’d said previously. Next I asked him about Amanda Blackhorse, the Navajo woman who, as lead petitioner in a federal trademark registration case, sought to cancel the team’s marks.
I was working on a profile of Blackhorse at the time and had asked her what she would say to Snyder if she ever had a chance. “I’d ask him, ‘Would you dare call me ‘a redskin,’ right here, to my face?’ ” she’d told me. So I asked the question for her.
“I think the best way is to just not comment on that type of stuff,” Snyder said. “I don’t know her.”
And then I asked if he would consider changing the name should his team lose the Blackhorse case. His voice rose an octave, sounding on the edge of anger. And that’s when he uttered the line about NEVER, complete with suggested typography.
Years later, when the Supreme Court made a ruling in a separate trademark case — which effectively ended Blackhorse’s litigation — Snyder offered a snide callback to NEVER. He said, in a team news release, that he was THRILLED with the ruling. Yes, they put it in caps.
So on Friday, when another release announced that the football club was launching a thorough review of its team name, I called Blackhorse to ask her about the events of the past couple of days, in which Federal Express and other big-money sponsors joined the change-the-name movement.
“The paradigm has shifted,” she said. “There is so much more support now. I feel like this is the moment.”
It is a moment I could feel coming. Last week I wrote a column in Washington City Paper in which I said other NFL owners would tell Snyder that the time had come for the name to go. “He’ll resist,” I wrote. “But then sponsors will tell him either the name goes or they do. And then the name will go, as it must, and should have long ago.”
Blackhorse said she had long understood that it was going to take sponsor dollars to make Snyder rethink the notion of never.
“Native people have been pushing him for decades,” she said. “FedEx asks him to change the name, and the next day he is considering it. That is how invisible we are to him and how much he doesn’t hear us or see us as real, living human beings.”
Blackhorse isn’t ready to celebrate just yet. First she wants to see what comes of the review.
“We are for a complete rebrand of the team,” she said, “without any Native imagery or any Native references in the name.”
If the Washington team asked, would she consider consulting on its review of the team name? “I don’t know,” she said.
Snyder famously told me to put NEVER in caps. Then, when Blackhorse’s case collapsed, he put THRILLED in caps. And so I asked her: Is there anything she’d like to put in caps for him?
Blackhorse thought about it for a moment, and then she laughed.
“Never say NEVER,” she said.
Erik Brady is a contributing columnist for the Buffalo News. He was a sports enterprise reporter for USA TODAY for 36 years and retired last year as the last member of its founding generation.