The largest-ever road-game protest against the Washington Redskins’ controversial team name took place on Sunday in Minneapolis, with a crowd of about 5,000 people calling on owner Dan Snyder to change the moniker Native American groups denounce as exploitative and racist.
Events before the Redskins faced off against the Minnesota Vikings began with a march through the University of Minnesota campus to TCF Bank Stadium, where Native American leaders, local politicians, former sports stars and other speakers voiced their disdain for Snyder’s refusal to change the team name.
The two-hour series of speeches was a peaceful gathering, including folk music and Native American dancers.
As the rally got underway, a group of protesters paraded along the sidewalk between the stadium and the stage, chanting: "Hey, hey, ho, ho, this racist name has got to go!" Some people wore burgundy T-shirts with gold lettering, mimicking the team's logo with the words "Rethink" and "Rename" instead of Redskins.
The gathering was by far the stiffest resistance for a Redskins road game and the latest push in a nationwide campaign that has cranked up over the last year.
"We're not mascots!" said former Vikings strong safety Joey Browner, one of 29 speakers who took the microphone on a lawn just steps from the stadium entrances.
Browner, who is part Native American, wore a black Vikings cap with a feather sticking out of it.
"As a former player, I feel really sad right now. ... This is still standing in front of us," said Browner, a six-time Pro Bowl pick who called the Washington team’s name a "bullying tactic."
Leading up to the game, groups calling for the name’s scrapping rolled out radio and television ads in the Twin Cities that criticized the moniker, and the city of Minneapolis to Hennepin County passed resolutions that called for its change.
Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, both Democratic members of Congress representing Minnesota, were present at Sunday’s rally, as was Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.
Minneapolis was the scene of similar protests against the Redskins’ name in 1992, when the team defeated the Buffalo Bills 37-24 in Super Bowl XXVI. According to reports at the time, protesters against the name numbered around 2,000.
This Sunday, the Redskins fared far worse, losing the regular-season game to the Minnesota Vikings 29-26. The Washington team, which has struggled to even reach the playoffs over the last two decades, has a record of 3 wins and 6 losses so far this season, the worst in their NFC division.
The NFL didn't immediately respond for comment on the protest. However, league Commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this year that the nickname has been "presented in a way that honors Native Americans."
According to protest organizer Lonny Leitner, a pro-Redskins rally of about 400 people, mostly Native Americans, also took place on campus a couple of blocks away, with attendees holding signs like "Native and proud to be a Redskin.”
This is not the first time the Redskins have faced racial controversy. Under the ownership of George Marshall, the franchise was the last in the league to integrate African-American players onto the roster, finally bending in 1962 to pressure from the federal government, which threatened to revoke the team’s stadium lease.
Statistics suggest current owner Snyder has support from the majority of the U.S. public. Among adults surveyed, 83 percent said the Redskins should not have to change their nickname, an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted last January found.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press