The Redskins Try to Focus-Group Racism

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning," the basis for the eight-part ESPN mini-series. He also wrote "The Challenge," the winner of the 2009 Scribes Book Award, and "Death Comes to Happy Valley."
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If you were the owner of a professional football team with a racist name from a bygone era, what would you do?

A. Acknowledge the name is offensive and rename the team.

B. Hire pollster Frank "It's-Not-What-You-Say-It's-What-They-Hear" Luntz to help you navigate your moral quandary?

If you're Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, the answer is apparently B. According to ThinkProgress, Luntz's firm has conducted an online survey and scheduled at least one focus group on the Redskins' name. Snyder hasn't confirmed that he did the hiring, but who else could it be?

Pressure has slowly been building on Snyder. Last month a Washington councilman introduced a resolution calling on him to change the team's "racist and derogatory name." There's also a lawsuit pending that argues that the word "Redskins" can't be trademarked because it's a slander.

Snyder has said, publicly and unequivocally, that he will never change the name. Why is he so attached to it? Money and tradition. Snyder has 80 years of brand equity invested in "Redskins," a name first bestowed on the team by the odious George Preston Marshall. A noted segregationist, Marshall's idea of clever marketing was to dress his head coach -- who may or may not have been part Sioux -- in war paint and a feathered headdress.

The helmet of a Washington Redskins player rests on the field during warm ups against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Photographer: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Snyder is at least more subtle, which explains the appearance of Luntz, a Republican strategist who specializes in refashioning the language deployed in policy debates. Thus did the inheritance tax become the "death tax," and Obamacare's insurance reforms become a "government takeover" of the health-care system. Luntz is also no stranger to sports, having helped the NFL and NHL put the right spin on player lockouts.

Luntz specializes in the goal-line stand, building a linguistic wall to halt the march of progressive legislation. We can expect his research to reveal that most Americans don't think the name "Redskins" is especially offensive. (A recent ESPN poll has already concluded as much.) Then Luntz can write a strategy memo advising Snyder on the most effective way to deflect the controversy. Among other things, Snyder will surely want to avoid reminding the public of the history of the term "Redskins." Football fans love tradition. But it's hard to root for a team named after the bloody scalps of American Indians butchered by bounty hunters.

Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.