The 2014 NFL season will kick off in full force Sunday following Thursday’s opening game with a mounting controversy over the racial connotations that the Washington Redskins’ name that has created an uncomfortable dilemma for sportscasters: how will they refer to the team?
The New York Daily News announced this week that the paper is not going to refer to the franchise as the Redskins, nor will it feature the Native American feathered logo. Instead the Daily News will print an image that uses the team’s burgundy and gold colors to alert readers to stories, columns and statistics relating to Washington. A week earlier, the team’s local Washington Post banned the “R-word” from its editorial page.
The team, which originated as the Boston Braves in 1932 but had its name changed to the Boston Redskins a year later, has been the focus of a racial debate raging throughout the NFL off-season, with owner Dan Snyder saying he won’t give in to pressure to change it.
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“A Redskin is a football player,” Snyder told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” during a recent interview. “A Redskin is our fans, the Washington Redskin fan base. It represents honor, represents respect, represents pride, hopefully winning.”
Even Capitol Hill is split on the issue, according a Washington Post poll, with 48 Democrats and one Repbublican saying it should be changed, 33 not offering an opinion and 11 thinking Congress should weigh in.
With Washington’s season kicking off this Sunday at 1 p.m. ET against the Houston Texans airing on Fox, TheWrap asked the major broadcast networks how they plan to handle the situation, see their responses below.
“We don’t tell our announcers what to say about any topic television. That is true about team names also,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said during the Television Critics Association conference in June. A spokesperson for the network confirmed with TheWrap on Friday that their policy has remained unchanged. “It’s a topic that’s obviously gotten a lot of attention,” he added, “it’s a very sensitive topic to a lot of people.”
CBS’ lead analyst and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms said last month that he plans to limit the use of the word as much as possible. “My very first thought is it will be Washington the whole game,” Simms told The Associated Press. “I never really thought about it, and then it came up and it made me think about it.”
The self-professed “worldwide leader in sports” released a statement to TheWrap explaining, “Our consistent company policy will continue: using official names and marks as presented by the teams, leagues and conferences we cover. We do, however, recognize the debate over the use of ‘Washington Redskins’ and have afforded individuals the opportunity to decide how they will use those words when reporting on the team.”
The cable network’s on-air talent is divided on the issue, however, with “Monday Night Football” commentators Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Lisa Salters offering their own personal opinions in a media call on Wednesday.
“That is the name. I’m going to refer to every team as the team they like to be referred to. I have a lot of respect to people’s opinion, I’m going to refer to them as the Redskins,” said Gruden.
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Fellow “MNF” commentator Tirico said beyond the opinion of ESPN executives and viewers, the most significant issue is what Native Americans think of the name. “I’ve been aware of the sensitivity and things that are perceived by many Native American communities as slurs for a couple decades now,” he said. When calling the game for over three hours as opposed to being in the broadcast booth, “you might make hundreds of references to it by first name of the city or by nickname. Also, if you broadcast a home game from D.C., the word Redskins is painted in the end zone and the logo with the head dress is in the middle of the field, so by not saying it are you lessening the impact of the nickname? It’s there in front of you. I don’t think we’re going have a computer graphic blur that out.”
Tirico went on to say that there is a contractual issue and they have an obligation to use the names and the marks of the teams because the league sells the right to do the games, but stressed: “I have my own personal feelings on the name. I think it’s time for Dan Snyder and the league together to truly take a long look at making a change. The appropriate approach for me is minimize the use of the nickname but not completely avoid it,” he concluded.
Salter said her opinion is simple. “I never want to offend anyone with my actions or my words, so if I offend one person with the use of the nickname, I’d rather not use it. In our preseason pregame coverage, I chose to just say Washington. No one noticed, no one said anything. So that’s just how I handle it.”
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During a press call this week celebrating the 20th anniversary of Fox’s coverage of the NFL, network spokesperson Dan Bell explained that “until the facts are different, the Redskins is the official name of the team. Rather than make ourselves part of the story, we will still use the name,” however when it comes to the on-air talent, “based on anyone’s personal convictions, no one is obliged to use the name.”
Super Bowl MVP-turned Fox analyst Troy Aikman said he isn’t giving in to pressure and stressed that “as long as their nickname is the Redskins, then that is what I am going to call them as that’s what I’ve always called them. I am sensitive to the issue, but to broadcast a Washington game for three hours and not refer to them as the Redskins is pretty naive. It is what I have known them to be for as long as I’ve been around.”
The broadcast network boasting “Sunday Night Football” is also letting their talent decide. “For all of our sports properties, our on-air commentators have full discretion to reference participating teams by their city/region/state name, team nickname or both,” the network said in a statement to TheWrap.
However, analyst and Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, who is one of most prominent voices in the league, said: “I will personally try not to use Redskins and refer to them as Washington. Personal opinion for me, not the network.”
Although it is not airing a Washington game this season, the NFL Network’s talent will be sure to talk about the team a lot. “We don’t instruct our analysts and hosts on exactly how to refer to each club. As a network that covers the NFL 24 hours a day, we will continue our practice of using the official name and logo of each of the 32 clubs in our programming,” Alex Riethmiller, spokesman for NFL Network told TheWrap.