On a Sunday Sports cover on Feb. 16, 1992, The Oregonian dropped a bombshell.
A short note appeared under the headline, “To Our Readers.” I am revisiting it in light of the Super Bowl this weekend. Here are relevant parts of the note:
“The Oregonian will immediately discontinue using sports teams’ names and nicknames that many Americans feel are offensive to members of racial, religious or ethnic groups.”
Initially, the note said, the policy would forbid use of the Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta team names and a college team nickname.
“Others may be dropped if it becomes evident that they, too, are offensive,” the note continued. “I have directed this action with the belief that these names tend to perpetuate stereotypes that damage the dignity and self-respect of many people in our society and that this harm far transcends any innocent entertainment or promotional value these names may have.
“America is a multicultural society and all of us have an absolute right to demand respect from our fellow citizens. The Oregonian is sensitive to the feelings of those in our society who are rightly offended today by names and nicknames that came into being when a majority in this country was insensitive to minority concerns.”
The note was signed William A. Hilliard, Editor.
To say Hilliard’s move was ahead of its time hardly describes the groundbreaking nature of it. The note’s matter-of-fact tone revealed little of the sometimes-heated discussions inside the newsroom.
The landmark decision also became a touchstone for journalists of color who understood the power of journalism to change minds and influence culture. Words matter.
In light of Sunday’s Super Bowl game, which features the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City, I decided to revisit what led up to Hilliard’s change in policy, which to this day prohibits use of the Kansas City team’s nickname.
In particular, the role of two midlevel editors has never received credit due. John Killen and Wilda Wahpepah were both editors working on the regional desk in the newsroom in the early 1990s. Killen had recently attended a diversity training at the University of Missouri and prepared a report on diversity at The Oregonian after his return.
Wahpepah had long been a voice in diversifying our newsroom and educating us on inclusive language and related topics. She also had completed the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, at University of Michigan, where she studied the historical and legal roots of tribal sovereignty. There, she first began reading the Lakota Times, whose editor Tim Giago had editorialized on the problem of teams appropriating Indigenous symbols and the dehumanizing of Native people through team mascots and nicknames.
“Stop insulting the spirituality and the traditional beliefs of the lndian people by making us mascots for athletic teams. ls that asking so much of America?” wrote Giago, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and esteemed journalist, who died last year.
Killen and Wahpepah found themselves discussing the slur that was the longtime name for Washington, D.C., football team. Killen recalled he had been kindly rebuked 15 years earlier for using the term in a former newsroom, in Idaho, with another member of the sports department. His colleague had close family members who were Nez Perce and told Killen he should not use the word.
Wahpepah, an enrolled member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, emphasized how offensive the term was and said the issue of team names and mascots was widely discussed in the Native American press. She and Killen decided to approach Hilliard to make the case The Oregonian should stop using the racist slur. They met over lunch and Killen recalls Hilliard, the first Black editor of a major metropolitan newspaper and first Black president of the American Society of News Editors, listened intently.
They heard nothing more from Hilliard for several weeks, but discussions among newsroom editors continued. Then, a memo from Hilliard dropped.
Jeff Wohler, Sports editor at the time, remembers that day well. It was a Friday afternoon, and an assistant managing editor slowly approached his desk. “He looked at me, dropped a piece of paper on my desk, and walked away,” Wohler said. “It was Hilliard’s note. I was stunned because, to me, it came out of nowhere.”
Wohler and Wahpepah, now a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in tribal law and finance, recall the issue had come up in at least one news meeting of editors prior to the announcement, but neither knew it had gotten traction. Killen said he was surprised, but pleased, that Hilliard had expanded the suggestion to cover even more names than just those that were slurs.
Hilliard had hopped on a plane for meetings out of town, so Wohler ended up fielding media inquiries from around the globe. “At one point, after two months of discussion around the country and the world, I counted up that I had done more than 100 interviews,” he told me.
But he also had to deal with some disgruntled writers in his own department and others in the newsroom who had questions. Some people argued, as many readers had, that the name was the name, and we should report it as is.
Hilliard held several newsroom meetings to hear concerns, as I recall. Wahpepah and Killen, who retired from The Oregonian/OregonLive in 2015, to this day have kept copies of a Q&A that editors prepared to help others understand the decision.
It began with a statement of policy: “The Oregonian, as a general rule, should not print words or phrases that are recognized as racial, ethnic, cultural or religious slurs.”
The simple and straightforward change set off howls of reader protest in 1992. The Sports section the next Sunday published many letters in response. Most objected to the change, saying we should cover what is, not make subjective decisions about what to include or not.
But, of course, journalists every day make such subjective decisions.
One letter writer decried our “profound asininity and politically correct non-reporting.” Another said, “When the animal rights people get done with mascots, there will be no more Ducks, Beavers, Bears, Cougars, Huskies or Banana Slugs, either.”
Others wrote in strong support of the decision. All the way from Toronto, a letter writer said, “Your decision to drop the use of American Indian names in your sports coverage is welcome. Although such a change might at first seem awkward and strange, ridding our language of words that demean, degrade and perpetuate stereotypes is an important part of developing a society in which all forms of racism become a thing of the past.”
In the years since, it has become clear how ahead of the times Hilliard was.
The Washington football team now is known as the Commanders, bowing to longtime pressure to eliminate the racist slur, and the Cleveland baseball team similarly renamed itself the Guardians last year.
Oregon and other states adopted policies requiring public schools to change their Native-themed names unless they had agreements with local tribes. (Three schools use “Warriors” but changed their logos to remove Native American themes.) The Associated Press, meantime, still uses team names we’ve long banned.
The newsroom’s policy has changed over the years. More team names were added, and we expanded the ban to include images of offensive mascots. We used to allow the names in articles, such as this one, when writing about the issue. But now we don’t use them in any instance.
When I think about the many legacies of Bill Hilliard, who died in 2017, his decision on sports nicknames is near the top of the list.
Editor's pick: I want to point out reporter Noelle Crombie's groundbreaking reporting on the scandal at the OLCC. I have opened up to be available for all readers of this newsletter as an illustration of the sort of public service journalism your subscription supports. If you want to see more government watchdog reporting, please support our work with a subscription to OregonLive. Here's the link.
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