The University of Minnesota is pushing Washington’s NFL team to refrain from using the “Redskins” moniker when it plays the Vikings on Nov. 2 at TCF Bank Stadium — a campaign that is drawing praise from American Indians and their supporters.
Citing efforts to promote equity and diversity, the U, which is leasing its TCF Bank Stadium to the Vikings, has asked the Washington team to keep its name off jerseys, promotional materials, announcements and merchandise sold during the game.
University officials have been working with the Indian and campus communities on the issue since the Vikings’ home schedule was announced, and met with Vikings representatives about three weeks ago.
The U “finds the name of the Washington football team — and other sports team names that promote negative and harmful stereotypes — offensive and inappropriate,” it said in a statement.
Arielle Dagen-Sunsdahl, a second-year law student at the U and incoming president of the Native American Law Student Association, said students at a public university should not have to see an offensive nickname used on campus.
“People think it doesn’t have an effect, but it really does,” Dagen-Sunsdahl said of the team’s name. “If that’s the only exposure they get to Native American culture, it’s really just a caricature, and it’s disparaging.”
Brandon Alkire, a senior who is a board member for the U’s American Indian Student Cultural Center, said the game will be played on the second day of Native American Heritage Month, making it even more of a “slap in the face.”
The Vikings are sensitive to the issue and are speaking with members of the Indian community about their concerns, team spokesman Lester Bagley said Friday. But the team’s ability to alter Washington’s promotional activities at the game may be limited, Bagley said.
“Not only do we have a significant Native American population in Minnesota, but the Vikings have strong relationships with several tribes in the state,” Bagley said. “At the same time, the Vikings are one of 32 NFL teams, and NFL policies obligate us to operate and market the game as we would any other game against any other NFL opponent.”
Washington’s team responded by saying that it respects the university’s choice, but disagrees with it.
“We have met many Native Americans from Minnesota who agree with us and feel we are using the term correctly and honorably,” team spokesman Tony Wyllie said in the statement.
In June, the U.S. Patent Office Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled that the Redskins name is “disparaging of Native Americans.” Although the team can continue to use the name, it may lose its trademark registration — a ruling that it plans to appeal.
Bagley said Vikings representatives will meet again with university officials in the “near future,” but on Friday night, the team’s immediate focus was its first preseason game against the Oakland Raiders.
The university’s stance against the team’s name was welcomed by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who wrote to Vikings owner Zygi Wilf in June asking him to publicly speak out against the issue. University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler wrote to McCollum on Aug. 1, confirming his intent to work with the Vikings.
On Friday, McCollum said she is pleased with Kaler’s discussions with the Vikings and the fact that he is “appropriately concerned about [team owner] Dan Snyder’s refusal to change this offensive mascot.”
“The University of Minnesota should live up to its values,” McCollum said. “This includes ensuring an environment on campus in which Native Americans and all Americans will be respected, not disparaged.”
Name called ‘indefensible’
American Indian tribes and activists from across the state have applauded the university’s efforts to keep the Washington team’s name out of TCF Bank Stadium, which features a Tribal Nations Plaza honoring Minnesota’s 11 tribes.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which donated $10 million to support the construction of TCF Bank Stadium, said it is working with the university to prepare appropriate responses to the November game.
“The SMSC community joins with others who believe the use of the name is indefensible and harms the way Native American children view themselves,” the tribe said in a statement.
Activists say they hope to halt the Nov. 2 game by staging a massive rally outside TCF Bank Stadium. When the Washington team played the Vikings at the Metrodome last year, about 700 people protested, and this year the group expects the rally to be much larger.
David Glass, chairman of the National Coalition on Racism Sports in Media, said he’ll spend the next three months organizing that rally, which he hopes will draw 5,000 protesters.
“If we’re not able to get the kinds of issues addressed that we’re looking for, we want to close it down,” Glass said of the game.
Norma Renville, operations manager of the American Indian Movement Interpretive Center in Minneapolis, said she believes the university could take an even stronger position. Instead of simply asking for compliance, it should demand it, she said.
Alkire said he and his peers at the American Indian Student Cultural Center will hold several cultural awareness programs on campus leading up to the game.
“I’m very grateful that the University of Minnesota has stepped up to say something as well,” he said. “Finally. It’s about time [it] took a stance.”