Ray Halbritter, the leader of the Oneida Indian Nation, and Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, couldn’t be further apart on the question of the NFL team’s name. But in other ways, the two have much in common. Both are bullheaded multimillionaire CEOs who hate losing, which has made their clash nearly as bruising as the boxing matches Halbritter hosts at his casino in upstate New York.
I caught up with Halbritter in early April at Harvard Law School, his alma mater, where he’d come to give a lunchtime talk. Halbritter, who is 65 but has a boyish face, had flown in on his tribe’s corporate jet. He wore a cashmere blazer and a gold Rolex. Martha Minow, the law school’s dean, who’d taught Halbritter civil procedure in the 1980s, wrapped him in a hug—“So good to see you!” Then Halbritter walked to the podium and likened Snyder and his backers to those on the wrong side of the 1960s civil-rights movement.
“Back then, these forces of the status quo were sitting in the halls of Congress,” he told the audience of law students and professors. “Today they are sitting in an NFL team’s front office.”
Native American activists have been saying since the late 1960s that the Redskins’ name is a slur. But their complaints drew little sustained notice until 2013, when Halbritter almost single-handedly vaulted the issue into the headlines. Drawing on his tribe’s wealth, he launched Change the Mascot, a campaign of radio ads, polls, opposition research, academic studies, YouTube videos, Twitter hashtags, and media interviews.