Seven years ago, having recently moved to Richmond, Stephen Rivera drove by the Washington Redskins training camp to support protesters calling for the team to change its name.
“I thought, ‘I’ll drive by, give them the thumbs up or the power sign or something, and get back on my way to work,’” he said. “I get here, and there’s no one [protesting]. I was shocked.”
Since then, Rivera has filled the void. He walks up and down DMV Drive on his days off, holding a sign that says “CHANGE THE NAME.” During a two-practice day, he walks a total of 15 miles, he said.
Rivera, who is of the Seneca Nation, has been calling for sports teams to stop using Native American imagery and mascots for years. He remembers protesting outside the 1992 Super Bowl in Minneapolis, which the Redskins played in, as well as other events.
Rivera’s seven years at training camp in Richmond have given him many interactions with fans on both sides of the debate.
“I think ignorance is the biggest hurdle,” he said. “People will tell me, ‘I’ll fight to the death to keep this name.’ And you ask, ‘Do you know where the name came from?’ No clue. ‘Did you know this isn’t their first name?’ Nope.
“But you’re willing to die for it?”
The team began as the Boston Braves in 1932, and changed to the Redskins after moving to Fenway Park the following season. Through a spokesman, the Redskins declined to comment for this story.
Rivera said other fans have come up to him and said they love and support the team, but wish the name would be changed. He said that he’s never felt alone in his protest, that he is keeping attention focused on a vital cause.
National momentum seemed to be building for a name change early in the decade, but was tempered by a Supreme Court ruling that validated the Redskins’ ability to protect their trademark rights, and a Washington Post poll in 2016 that found 9 in 10 Native Americans surveyed did not find the name offensive.
Rivera said the reaction to the Supreme Court ruling, which was trumpeted by team officials, helps prove his point.
“If you celebrate that a disparaging name can be free speech, I think you’re confessing something to the world,” he said.
Many days, Rivera wears a T-shirt with the word “Caucasians” on it, stylized to look like a sports team logo.
He said he is motivated by a desire to protect Native American children from the stigma that comes with their identity being used as a sports mascot, and criticized the city of Richmond for paying to bring the team to town, and Bon Secours for sponsoring the camp.
“And they lose money on it,” he said, referring to the city. “They have to pay to bring racism here. That just totally blows my mind.”
Rivera is now ready to pass the fight on to the next generation. At the 1992 Super Bowl, after the protest, he went to meet his newborn niece.
She’s now an adult, and when the Minnesota Vikings host Washington later this season, she plans to be outside the stadium, taking a stand against the use of the Redskins name.