FCC's Wheeler: 'Redskins' Name Is Offensive, Should Go

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says he thinks the "Redskins" name for Washington's NFL team is offensive and should be changed, but thinks public pressure is the best vehicle for that exit.

Former FCC Chair Reed Hundt, who is leading an effort by former FCC officials and others to get Redskins owner Dan Snyder to change the name of the team, had asked FCC commissioners to speak out. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has said she knew the name was offensive to a number of people and had concerns herself, but Wheeler had yet to weigh in--the other commissioners have declined comment.

"I don't use the term personally and I think it is offensive and derogatory," Wheeler told B&C/Multichannel News. "I am a Civil War buff," he pointed out, "and there were a lot of terms that were appropriate at that time that aren't appropriate any more."

Hundt has said he thinks the term could be indecent by FCC standards or its use could disqualify Snyder's under character qualifications for ownership.

George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf has gone further, challenging the license of Snyder's WWXX-FM Washington (ESPN 980) over the broadcast of the name "Redskins," arguing that it could be indecent, or borderline obscene, or possibly hate speech, and in any event its use is not in the public interest, which broadcasters must serve as the condition of their license.

"Does the FCC have a role in advancing that goal beyond the bully pulpit?" B&C/Multi asked Wheeler. "I think it would be great if the Washington football team would recognize those kinds of changes itself," he says. "I hope that this is something that if enough people express themselves, Dan Snyder can see which way things are going."

Over 100 groups including Common Cause and NAACP last week asked broadcasters to stop using the name, saying it was a dictionary-defined slur.

The Washington Post has decided not to use the name on its opinion pages, and the New York Daily News has said it won't use it in stories about the team. In Washington, Democratic legislators have pushed for a name change, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and the Copyright Office has ruled the name offensive and won't extend federal protection to Redskins-licensed merchandise.

On that front, e-commerce site Etsy said this week it will no longer carry items with the name or logo in its online marketplace. That may be less of a sacrifice that it once might have been. There are reports, cited by Etsy, that sales of Redskins merchandise have dropped dramatically in the wake of the name controversy.

National Congress of American Indians executive director Jacqueline Pata and Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter, who are leading figures in the Change the Mascot campaign, were pleased with Wheeler’s position and Hundt’s historic support.  

“We thank FCC chairman Tom Wheeler and former chair Reed Hundt for their strong stances opposing the R-word, which is a damaging epithet that denigrates Native Americans,” they said in a statement. “These are two men who have been entrusted to determine exactly which words are inappropriate and it is significant and telling that they both agree that the R-word is a derogatory term that is so offensive that it has no place on the public airwaves.”  

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.