Protesters will challenge Washington Redskins name in Minneapolis Sunday
A thousand miles west of their home turf, the Washington Redskins will face a double dose of hostility in Minnesota Sunday. Washington will play the Minnesota Vikings to the roar of a crowd inside TCF Bank Stadium, even as a chorus of speakers outside denounce their team name as a racial slur.
Organizers expect thousands of protesters to turn out in what they hope will be the biggest demonstration ever against the Redskins name.
It will be the fourth large local protest against the use of Indian imagery in pro sports since the Twins played the Atlanta Braves in the World Series in 1991.
"I think this demonstration is going to show the best of Minnesota," predicted U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, one of the rally speakers and one of the most outspoken opponents of the nickname on Capitol Hill, just a few miles from the team's stadium in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
"Never in my history in dealing with issues like this have we had [this level] of solidarity of civil rights and human rights organizations and all the tribal people," said Clyde Bellecourt, a longtime leader and co-founder of the American Indian Movement.
Team owner Daniel Snyder, however, shows no signs of retiring the Redskins logo. He has adamantly refused to change the team's name, which he contends honors American Indians, despite a letter signed by half the U.S. Senate and criticism by President Obama, along with opposition from a host of black, Hispanic and other national civil rights organizations.
Minnesota is "ground zero"
In Minnesota, with a significant Indian population and a history of activism, opposition has proved particularly persistent and become part of the public debate.
On Tuesday, the Hennepin County Board passed a resolution calling for the Washington franchise to change its nickname to one "that is not racist and derogatory," Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said in a statement.
Last week, the city of Minneapolis said it lacked the legal standing to forbid the team from using the nickname when it comes to town.
The university has stated its own objections to the nickname but said it is limited by its contract with the Vikings, who are playing at TCF Bank Stadium while their new stadium is being built.
Protesters will gather Sunday on the University of Minnesota's Northrop Plaza between 8:30 and 9 a.m., hear some Indian prayers, then march to TCF Bank Stadium at 10 a.m. for a rally and a plethora of speakers.
Weather aside, Minnesota has given the Washington Redskins a chilly reception for years.
When the Buffalo Bills played Washington in the only Super Bowl hosted in Minnesota, in January 1992, 3,000 demonstrators surprised the crowds of celebrities who arrived at the Metrodome. Andy Rooney, the late curmudgeon commentator for CBS' "60 Minutes," expressed bewilderment at the protest, asking a reporter what the fuss was all about.
When Washington returned for a Monday night football game last November, 700 demonstrators took to the street.
That Minnesota has been the epicenter of anti-Redskins mobilizations could be expected, says Dave Zirin, sports editor of the Nation, a liberal national weekly magazine published in New York, who also writes for ESPN.
Zirin, a graduate of Macalester College, has long followed the debate over the Redskins' nickname and knows Minnesota well.
"You have the reservations and the tribal councils," he said. "It is ground zero for the Native American civil rights movement and the American Indian Movement going back to the 1960s."
The heat over the nickname has stepped up dramatically in the past two years, Zirin said, stoked by social media and the intractable "belligerence" of team owner Snyder.
"He [Snyder] is the sports mascot equivalent of George Wallace who said segregation now, segregation forever," said Zirin, referring to the late Alabama governor.
On Wednesday, David Glass, president of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, hosted a final logistics meeting of his group with representatives of the University of Minnesota, including university police chief Greg Hestness, and the Minneapolis Police Department.
Organizers say the plan is for a peaceful, legal protest that will begin with prayers at Northrop Plaza at 9 a.m., followed by the march at 9:30 a.m. and a rally on the plaza outside TCF Bank Stadium at 10 a.m.
Speakers include Indian reservation leaders, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, comedian Dick Gregory, former Vikings star Joey Browner, activist Winona LaDuke along with musicians Larry Long and Mitch Walking Elk.
Lester Bagley, the Minnesota Vikings executive vice president of public affairs and stadium development, said the team is "sensitive to the issue" and was working to set up a meeting between the protest leaders and the National Football League.
University officials have also announced a set of educational activities this week to "increase awareness, discussion and understanding of the effects of American Indian nicknames and stereotypes of American Indian mascots and logos."
Because of obligations to the NFL that require it be treated like any other home game, the Vikings said they will be required to put the Redskins' name on the scoreboard and signs inside the stadium, despite protesters' requests not to do so.
Bagley said the team had cooperated with the protesters by allowing them to use the plaza, which is technically leased from the university.
Asked for the team's views about the controversy over the nickname, Tony Wyllie, Washington's senior vice president of communications, said in an e-mail, "We are traveling to Minneapolis to try and win a football game, and that is the foremost issue on our mind.
"Whatever the politics going on outside the stadium will happen outside the stadium."
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.