Clyde Bellecourt showed up at the Metrodome Friday hoping to persuade the public board that runs the stadium to ban the broadcast and display of the Washington Redskins’ nickname and logo when the NFL team plays there next month.
But the longtime American Indian Movement leader left disappointed an hour later after the board, under advice from its attorney, declined to do so.
“It takes time to do this, unfortunately,” Bellecourt said afterward. “This isn’t going to happen overnight when you are dealing with people who are ignorant about our culture and our history. It’s a pretty thick skull that we have to get through.”
Bellecourt and other American Indian activists argued Friday, as they have repeatedly in letters and meetings with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority and the Vikings in recent days, that the “R word” and logo are derogatory, destructive and racist. They have asked that the nickname not be broadcast or appear on any signs or other public spaces inside the venue for Washington’s Nov. 7 game with the Vikings.
But the authority, which operates the Metrodome and is overseeing construction of the Vikings’ new $975 million stadium, rejected AIM’s request to ban the nickname and logo after its attorney advised that doing so could infringe on the right to free speech.
“You follow the laws, you don’t make the laws,” attorney Jay Lindgren told the authority board members. “Your goal and role is to act within the law.
“You operate a large public building,” Lindgren added. “You don’t control the free speech that takes place within that building … Right or wrong, right now the word ‘Redskins’ is not a word that falls within the recognized exceptions to First Amendment protections. So, I think your role is to allow free speech to occur.”
Alan Yelsey, an activist and child psychologist who addressed the authority Friday, said afterward that he was “just aghast” by the board’s position.
He said the group may file a class-action lawsuit against the authority and Vikings if they don’t take action before the Nov. 7 game.
The board’s decision came after Bellecourt urged authority members to “do what is right.”
Bellecourt, 77, said he has been fighting to ban racist nicknames and logos for decades, dating back to the day when the American Indian Movement was founded in Minneapolis in 1968.
He was on the plaza outside the Metrodome during the 1991 World Series between the Twins and Atlanta Braves to protest the promotion and display of the Braves nickname and their fans’ “tomahawk chop” rally cry.
And he was involved for years in the successful battle to get the University of North Dakota to drop the “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo.
“It’s time for America to let it go,” he said. “The ‘R’ word is no different from the ‘N’ word.”
Looking to the NFL
AIM activists sent a letter to the stadium authority earlier this month as part of a national campaign targeting American Indian mascots. They asked the authority to consider banning the nickname and logo at the publicly-run Metrodome because they reinforce hurtful stereotypes. The group met privately with the authority and Vikings Thursday and cited more than a dozen laws that the authority would break if the nickname and logo were displayed or broadcast.
It restated those concerns Friday, saying that using the nickname and logo would not only promote racist stereotypes, but violate state and federal law and the authority’s own affirmative action policies.
Other organizations and leaders, from the American Civil Liberties Union to Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, also have weighed in supporting a ban.
Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley said Friday that team officials have had ongoing discussions with AIM about the issue and “are sensitive to the concerns they raise.”
But he said the team is “looking to the NFL for their reaction and guidance on this. Until the NFL tells us something has changed, we’ll proceed” as is, he said.
Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman, said in an e-mail Friday that TV networks, working under contract with the league, make reference to the team’s “city/state/region and the nickname. There is no set requirement on the mix. They have to use the team name, logos and colors in graphics. They could not make up an alternative nickname.”
But Yelsey said AIM’s request of the authority and the Vikings is more narrow. Simply put, the group does not want the nickname or logo used or promoted in a venue funded with public money.
“The people of Minnesota control the venue,” he said. “That is our facility. We are asking them not to use the name in any way, shape or form in signage that they control.”
Michele Kelm-Helgen, the authority chairwoman, said after Friday’s meeting that the issue is one of the most difficult she has faced in 16 months in the job.
She said she has met with officials from the NFL, the Vikings and AIM to “talk about different options” and a possible solution, but that it was clear from discussions with the NFL that the team and league “control gameday issues.
“I have a great deal of sympathy,” she said. “But we just don’t have the control. It’s a much bigger national issue that needs to be addressed.”
Yelsey, however, said the authority does have the ability and the responsibility to make a change.
He said he and other activists plan to meet with Gov. Mark Dayton and Attorney General Lori Swanson next week to keep pressuring the stadium authority on the issue.
“We believe they will not allow this decision to stand,” Yelsey said.
The group also plans a march and rally outside the Metrodome Nov. 7 to protest.
“I know we’re going to have a tremendous turnout, because everybody is weighing in on the issue,” Bellecourt said, noting that President Obama also has said that Washington should consider a new nickname. “They all want that name to go.”