Across an exceptional life, Ben Nighthorse Campbell has won more than he’s lost.
He’s been a U.S. senator, a congressman, a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic judo team, a police officer, a rancher and a jewelry designer.
Campbell represented Colorado in the Senate, first as a Democrat and then as a Republican. One plank in his platform never changed, regardless of political affiliation.
Campbell, who’s part Northern Cheyenne Indian, said the Washington Redskins were a football team with a racist name.
He introduced a bill in 1993 to allow the team to build a stadium on federal land only if it would “refrain from derogatory or offensive ethnic or racial stereotypes.”
Campbell, now 87, retired from politics undefeated in 2005. But he couldn’t rid the National Football League of the Redskins.
The team left Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington in 1997. It built a stadium a few miles away, in suburban Maryland, but the team is still the Washington Redskins.
Jack Kent Cooke, a late team owner, said there was nothing wrong with the name Redskins. His publicity department amplified his message to hold off Campbell.
“Over the long history of the Washington Redskins, the name has reflected positive attributes of the American Indian such as dedication, courage and pride,” Cooke’s staff said in a press handout.
Campbell once told me he wasn’t impressed with that rationale.
“Can you imagine a team named Blackskins? It wouldn’t be tolerated,” he said.
Now, in a time when Confederate monuments and schools named for colonists are centers of controversy, the Washington Redskins again are feeling pressure to change their name.
The current Redskins owner, Daniel Snyder, has taken the same stand as Cooke. Snyder says he won’t scrap a name that has defined the franchise for 87 years.
George Preston Marshall founded the team as the Boston Braves in 1932. A Major League Baseball franchise carried the same name.
Marshall in 1933 changed his team’s name to the Boston Redskins. He moved the franchise to Washington in 1937 but retained the team name.
All NFL owners of Marshall’s era were raised in a racist society. Marshall still stood out from the rest.
His team was the last in the NFL to hire a Black player, not doing so until 1962.
This brought Marshall more criticism than the name Redskins ever did. Movies and other media used the term Redskins throughout his ownership, always without retribution.
Marshall died in 1969. Another two decades would pass before Cooke received pressure to change the Redskins name.
Campbell won election to the Senate in 1992. At the time, he was the only American Indian in Congress.
He worked on water, agriculture and business bills. But Campbell also applied pressure to any franchise or school that used Redskins as its mascot.
The school board supervising Arvada High School in suburban Denver dropped the team name Redskins a year after Campbell became a senator. Many Arvada graduates protested the change, from Redskins to Reds. The school later adopted Bulldogs as its team name.
Campbell took plenty of jabs from critics who said he was focused on trivia and political correctness instead of solving real problems. He had a ready comeback: They hadn’t walked in his boots.
Many more school administrators believed Campbell had a point.
Miami University in Ohio in 1998 changed its mascot from Redskins to RedHawks. Alumni objections followed, but no student, player, coach or ball boy was worse for it.
Then the National Collegiate Athletic Association began pressuring member schools to change team names and mascots that the umbrella organization considered “hostile or abusive.”
Indiana University of Pennsylvania scrapped the nickname Indians. Its teams were renamed the Crimson Hawks.
The University of North Dakota fought the NCAA for seven years to save its Fighting Sioux team name. The school gave up in 2012. Its teams became the Fighting Hawks.
Through it all, the Washington Redskins owners have held firm, sticking with skin color instead of switching the mascot to a bird or big cat.
Snyder says it’s his business, and he runs it as he pleases.
He’s had more controversy than success. The Redskins have had winning records in only six of Snyder’s 21 seasons.
If he changed the team name, he would sell just as much merchandise, maybe more with smart marketing highlighting an uplifting chapter in American history.
When segregation ruled, Washington and Homestead, Pa., shared a great Negro League baseball team called the Grays, a name referencing uniform color.
With legends Josh Gibson and James “Cool Papa” Bell, the Grays filled white-owned big-league ballparks in Pittsburgh and Washington, delighting the growing Black middle class.
The Grays are mostly forgotten now. Snyder could revive their story and perhaps do the same for his moribund franchise.
He has nothing to lose except more years of acrimony.
Retire the Redskins. Remember the Grays.
It would be a whole new ball game.