Commentary

Decoding Dan Snyder's message

Updated: November 27, 2013, 10:56 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Daniel SnyderGeorge Gojkovich/Getty ImagesHow much more of his team's reputation is owner Dan Snyder going to give up because of a nickname?

Monday night signaled a significant shift in the debate over the nickname for Washington's NFL team. As a group of World War II Navajo Code Talkers took the field during a break in the game against the San Francisco 49ers while wearing Redskins clothing, the argument ceased to be about something as simple as the name of a football team.

This was Daniel Snyder's dare, his grand goad on the national stage, the boldest act of defiance yet. There was nothing subtle about this; this was a door to the wink-wink world of the smug and self-important being flung wide open. The Navajo Code Talkers were being honored for their heroic service. That much is true. But their appearance in the midst of the nickname controversy served to boost Snyder's campaign to poke an opposition that is all too eager to be goaded.

Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie noted that Presidents Bush and Obama have honored the Code Talkers at the White House. The Redskins provided the team gear for the Code Talkers, just as they do for every group they host. Asked if the decision to honor the Code Talkers on the Redskins' military day had anything to do with the nickname controversy, Wyllie performed a deft sidestep, saying, "As 'A Salute to Service,' we found it fitting to honor these heroes."

All fine -- honorable, on its face -- but it's difficult to ignore the timing. The entire operation is depressingly familiar, the student-body right in the Frank Luntz playbook. Snyder is trying to napalm the opposition with pseudo events and false constructs. It's like he is running a continuous misdirection play. You might think the name Redskins is racist on its face -- in keeping with history and dictionaries -- but forget about that because Hey, look over here at the Native American national heroes in their official team gear. If they don't care, why should you?

Roy Hawthorne, 87, is one of the Code Talkers who was honored. He told The Associated Press the Redskins paid for their trip to Washington. "My opinion is that's a name that not only the team should keep, but that's a name that's American," he said.

Many other Native Americans agree with Hawthorne and many others believe differently. And many people -- Native American or otherwise -- aren't the least bit concerned about the issue because it's the nickname of a football team and really not that important in the grand scheme of things.

There's no longer much room for reason. This probably isn't the optimal time to be running the Redskins' PR. Arguments on both sides have begun to take on lives of their own, often detached from reality. On Tuesday, photos of Redskins "Code Breaker" T-shirts began circulating through social media, and it was reflexively seen as a craven attempt to capitalize on the Navajos' appearance from Monday night. As it turns out, though, every team sells "Code Breaker" T-shirts, and none of them have anything to do with Native Americans or World War II or even codes, for that matter.

And that detachment from reason is why this is no longer about a nickname. Instead, it's about stubbornness and arrogance and a ham-fisted public-relations campaign on behalf of the stubborn and arrogant. It's about people who are accustomed to getting their way arching their backs and curling their lips and telling the world they aren't about to stop getting their way. It's about entrenchment.

Snyder trots out the Code Talkers while refusing to sit down and discuss the nickname issue with Oneida tribal leaders who are interested in helping him understand their concerns. He trots out the Code Talkers while refusing to acknowledge the legitimate opposition to the Redskins name -- an Oneida nation poll of Washington-area adults cited in USA Today showed 59 percent believed Native Americans would be justified in feeling offended by being called "redskin." He trots out the Code Talkers emboldened by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has made support of the nickname into an official league stance with Congress and who didn't attend a league meeting with Oneida representatives.

The Code Talkers follow in the awkward path of Chief Dodson, the "full-blooded Indian" Snyder pitchman whose foray into public relations included a shoutout to his towing company while he was on "Redskins Nation," Snyder's version of state-sponsored TV. Dodson was later revealed to be neither a chief nor a full-blooded Indian, both of which he proudly proclaimed to anyone who might think the team's nickname demeans people who are legitimately what he only claimed to be.

In the annals of history, Chief Dodson will go down as the Joe The Plumber of the Snyder campaign.

The most strident members of the meritocracy will tell you that Snyder runs a private company, and therefore he has the right to call it what he wants and spit in the eye of anyone who disagrees. Don't listen to any of that. Before he owned his team, it accepted $70 million in public funding to build FedEx Field. At bare minimum, his presence within that structure carries an obligation to consider public opinion.

But from a sociological and common-sense perspective, here's a pertinent question: How can this nickname -- or any nickname, really -- be considered so sacred? How much of your remaining dignity are you willing to shed for the cause? If the people you are attempting to "honor" with the name would like to speak to you about dishonor, hear them out. If it offends the people it is intending to "honor," change it. It's a nickname, not a religion. The Bullets are now the Wizards and the Hornets are now the Pelicans and when you get right down to it, this is all pretty low-level stuff.

But as we found out Monday night, it's no longer about the nickname. It's about ego and status and the petulance.

Amid the incessant static, though, it would be nice if Snyder could simply cease the cynical ploys to convince us it's a good and honorable fight. If you're going to stick it out, just stick it out. After Monday night, it's clear Snyder's on his way to doing the unthinkable: He's made us pine for the days when a racist and unnecessary nickname was the most unsavory part of the operation.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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