Updated at 9:44 a.m. ET, Sunday, Oct 6, 2013
WASHINGTON (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 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 at the White House.
An avid sports fan who roots for his hometown Chicago Bears, 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 he 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.
The team’s owner, Dan Snyder has vowed to never abandon the name.
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.
Lanny J. Davis, an attorney for the Redskins, said the team’s fans don’t intend to “disparage or disrespect” anyone.
“The name ‘Washington Redskins’ is 80 years old. It’s our history and legacy and tradition,” Davis said in an emailed statement in which he also identified himself as an Obama supporter. “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. Davis referred to fans of those teams and hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks in his statement, saying Redskins fans “love our team and its name and, like those fans, we do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group.”
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 symposium Monday at the Washington hotel hosting the NFL’s fall meeting.
“We really appreciate the president underscoring what we’ve been saying,” said Ray Halbritter, leader of the Oneida Indian Nation, a tribe from upstate New York that’s been campaigning against the name. “There’s just no place for a professional football team to be using what the dictionary defines as a racially offensive term.”
Halbritter said the NFL and Snyder could “borrow a page from the president” and use a decision to change the team’s name as a “teachable moment.”
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.”
“I’d probably look at a basketball team before I looked at a football team,” said Obama, who plays basketball in his spare time, has coached his daughter’s basketball team and is a fan of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. “I know more about basketball than I do about football.”
Associated Press writers Joseph White and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.