Opponents of "Redskins" Nickname Find Ammo in Vikings/U of M Stadium Contract

Earlier this month, University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler appeared on MPR's The Daily Circuit to talk about the direction of the school. Buried near the end of that interview was a quick, though important, conversation about football.

The university has leased TCF Bank Stadium to the Minnesota Vikings for the next two years, and on November 2 will host the Washington Redskins. The team's name conjures images of dead Native Americans for bounty and upsets just about everyone who doesn't work for the team.

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In the past, Kaler has called on the Vikings to take a stand against "that hateful slur" and to bar the word from appearing on game day. When asked about it again on MPR, he insisted that the university's hands are tied. A request is merely a request, he said, and the onus is on the Vikings to act. In retrospect, he would have been tougher on the Vikings during negotiations, but "it wasn't on my radar screen or our general counsel's radar screen at the time."

However, the actual contract between the university and the Vikings tells a different story. It suggests that the university would be within its rights to prevent the Redskins name and logo from appearing in the stadium.

Consider this: The section in the contract laying out advertising and sponsorship restrictions says the Vikings cannot engage in any action or use any language inside the stadium that
might reasonably be expected to offend contemporary community standards, such as use of words regarding sexual acts, defamatory language, or language that might denigrate any class or group of people.
What's more, if the Vikings or any NFL team are found in violation of the rules while in the stadium, that could result in a breach of contract (see whole document on page 2). It goes on to say:
University and its employees and agents may refuse admission to the TCF Bank Stadium of (and remove from the TCF Bank Stadium) any person whose behavior violates any Applicable Law, Stadium Rule or right of others or is otherwise objectionable or improper in a material way.
There's also the policy of the U's own athletics department, which explicitly bans the display of "mascots, nicknames and symbols" that portray "Native American culture in demeaning and stereotypical ways." And what's the legal basis for this? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a clause that prohibits discrimination in sports arenas. This summer, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that the Redskins name is "disparaging."

Even so, Bill Donohue, general counsel for the U, disagrees that the university has the power to regulate speech at TCF stadium in the same way it does not put restrictions on musicians or politicians. The language in the contract about refusing admission, he says, is merely "a repetition of state law that applied to the Vikings when they were at the Metrodome." He adds, "We are confident they will deal with it appropriately at our stadium as well."

In other words, go ask the Vikings. However, the Vikings referred us back to the university, noting that they agree with Donohue's legal assessment. In a statement, the team adds, "NFL policies obligate us to operate and market the game on November 2 as we would any other game against any other opponent."

Meanwhile, Clemon Dabney, a research assistant, is urging his university to put greater pressure on everybody -- the Redskins, the Vikings, and the NFL. In a resolution he drafted for the graduate student government, he's asking that the team from Washington be forced to wear throwback jerseys and that the university donate its rental income for the game -- more than $250,000 -- to Native American scholarships.

It's highly unlikely, but the dude is no dummy: Dabney understands that there are legitimately conflicting ideas in the public sphere between the need for a safe environment and the right of expression. Still, he finds the university's reliance on the First Amendment to be disingenuous. As an experiment, he says, he recently approached administrators about naming an intramural team after a racial epithet and the administrators said no.

"But when there's money involved, all of a sudden it's about free speech," Dabney says.

If all else fails, the advocate and his allies are planning a press conference late next week as well as a huge protest on game day -- which happens to fall during Native American Heritage Month.

Here's the contract:

Vikings University Agreement