Groups press U to take on NFL, ban DC team's mascot from stadium

American Indians and supporters
American Indians and their supporters protest Washington's controversial nickname and logo outside the Metrodome during a NFL game with Minnesota last year.
Jim Mone / AP 2013

The University of Minnesota isn't using all its legal leverage to block the use of the Washington Redskins' name and logo at the university's stadium, say critics who have been pressuring the franchise to change its name.

St. Paul attorney Larry Leventhal, a board member of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, contends that the team's use at a Nov. 2 game between the Minnesota Vikings and Washington at TCF Bank Stadium violates the university's stadium lease agreement with the Vikings.

"What we're observing is an apparent effort by the university to kind of give lip service to what the contract says," Leventhal said.

University officials have said they can only ask the Vikings not to use the controversial name and logo in connection with the game.

But Leventhal said the lease does give the university officials some legal power.

He said use of the logo and name "Redskins" violates this section of the contract:

The Vikings shall not take any action or use any language in its use of the Facilities 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.

Coalition members say many Native Americans and others find the "Redskins" name racially offensive and therefore subject to the clause.

Minnesota Vikings v Washington Redskins
A Washington fan watches his team play the Minnesota Vikings during a game in Landover, Maryland.
Patrick McDermott / Getty Images 2012

But university General Counsel Bill Donohue said the contract was not intended to restrict team names or logos.

"The agreement," he said, "gives us no control over the Vikings' schedule, gives us no control over who their opponents are — much less their opponents' nicknames."

Leventhal, however, said use of the name and logo also violates university policies requiring an environment free from racism, and goes against similar state and federal laws.

He said the Vikings — and by extension the NFL — are contractually required to follow those rules.

The agreement enables the university to bar the Vikings from using the stadium — or at least sue the team for damages — in the case of a violation, Leventhal said.

Donohue disagrees.

He said university equity policies, as well as state and federal laws, apply to access — and the university grants stadium access to everyone.

Donahue also said the language barring denigrating speech applies only to advertising and sponsorships.

"That section, and the whole agreement, just weren't intended to control team nicknames," he said.

At stake, Donohue said, are First Amendment rights. The university lets many groups lease its facilities, he said, "and we don't control their speech."

Pierre Garcon, Chad Greenway
Washington wide receiver Pierre Garcon, right, is tackled by Minnesota's Chad Greenway during a game in Minneapolis last year.
Jim Mone / AP 2013

Two Twin Cities law professors said the coalition could make a pretty good argument that "Redskins" is a denigrating term that violates the university's facilities use agreement.

University of Minnesota law professor Brian Bix also said, "I think there's a good argument — not foolproof, but there's a good argument — that it violates the university policies."

But he and University of St. Thomas law professor Joel Nichols say enforcing the contract could be tough.

Lease language suggests that a violation would have to go uncorrected for 30 days after written notice is given before the U could end the contract or keep the Vikings from the stadium.

"It seems to be either a long-term problem [over which] you can take action," Nichols said, "or one you can anticipate happening — and you have to give notice early enough."

Both professors said the university could sue the Vikings for financial damages, but it would be difficult to quantify how much U of M could win, if anything.

However, Nichols said ultimately the U could use the legal arguments to pressure the Vikings in its current talks over use of the Washington name.

Pressure has been mounting — both nationally and in Minnesota — for the Washington team to change its name.

In June, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum wrote Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, asking him to condemn the Redskins name. McCollum, a Democrat, wrote that its presence would violate university regents' policy on equity and diversity.

University President Eric Kaler wrote to McCollum, saying he found the name offensive, and agreed it should be ditched, but told her the university had no authority to bar its use in announcements and game-related materials.

Kaler told MPR News on Oct. 2 that although the U was talking to the Vikings about doing so, "it is a request. It is important to understand this. ... It's up to the Vikings. ... All we can do is make that request."

He said that at the time the university was negotiating the lease, pushing for a contractual way to block the name "was not on my radar screen or our general counsel's radar screen."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.