Who Is Behind the New Washington Football Team Propaganda Site? An Investigation.

The stadium scene.
July 29 2014 9:17 PM

Who’s Behind the New Washington Football Team Website?

The team wants you to think there's a grass-roots movement in support of its offensive nickname. The site’s source code suggests otherwise.

nickname protest
A 2013 protest of the Washington NFL team's nickname.

Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

You may have noticed ads on the Washington Post and Sports Illustrated websites for a new site that wants to set the record straight on the Washington NFL team’s offensive nickname. That site, which was registered on June 30, touts the nickname’s storied history, various polls that reflect its popularity, and claims that it’s really, truly not offensive to Native Americans.

Who is behind this site, which has a stated mission to present “historical evidence to fair-minded opinion leaders on both sides of the issue so ongoing discussions can be constructive”? The About Us page indicates that it is “a growing online community of passionate Washington [NFL team] fans and others who support the team’s use of its name and logo.” A Washington team spokesman told the local ABC affiliate WJLA that “they know of the site and totally support their effort,” sounding surprised and delighted by this online campaign.

A graphic at the top of the nickname-defending website, though, indicates that it’s “sponsored by” the team’s alumni. In addition, former Washington players Gary Clark, Chris Cooley, Mark Moseley, Ray Schoenke, and Roy Jefferson are listed as the “steering committee.”

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When asked who was providing financial support for the site, Washington NFL team spokesman Tony Wyllie was coy. (Though Slate does not print the team’s offensive nickname, we will make an exception here to quote Wyllie accurately.) “The alumni and the Redskins have a long history of supporting each other and this education effort is no different,” Wyllie explained via email. “So where it is appropriate for the alumni to pay for expenses then they will and when it is appropriate for the Redskins then the organization will. Since it is so early in the education effort there is no easy breakdown available.”

While that statement is not dripping with clarity, we do know that Washington owner Daniel Snyder has in the past enlisted mouthpiece-for-hire Lanny Davis to stump for the team's nickname. This new, probably-not-grass-roots website also appears to be part of a PR operation. This one bears the fingerprints of Burson-Marsteller, a communications firm best known for its crisis management services. Burson-Marsteller has done PR work for, among many others, the manufacturer of the Three Mile Island plant, Johnson & Johnson (in the wake of early-1980s Tylenol poisonings), and military contractor Blackwater USA. The firm’s crisis management page also notes “The Lady Gaga Concert Debacle” as a representative case study.

Though Burson-Marsteller has not publicly declared that it has any connection to the nickname-defending website, Jamie Zoch of Dot Weekly noted that the firm has hand-registered several sites with very similar names in recent days. (The registrant name for the nickname-defending site itself is listed as “PERFECT PRIVACY, LLC.” Perfect Privacy is a service that allows you to buy a Web domain without releasing any of your personal information.) A Google site search of the nickname website also reveals a login page that is “Powered by Burson Site Factory.” And a search of the site’s source code reveals a link to http://www.burson.acsitefactory.com. That Burson page shares an IP address (54.235.214.41) with the nickname website.

What is Burson Site Factory? Another Google site search, this time of http://www.burson.acsitefactory.com, reveals the existence of http://crisispreview.burson.acsitefactory.com/, which appears to be a template for a generic crisis management website. That template, like the nickname site, was built using the content management system Drupal. The source code for both sites reveals that they share a Drupal theme, something called “acq_crisisoncarbon,” as well as large chunks of code.

How do the two sites compare visually?

Here’s one of the banner images on the nickname site, which features former Washington coach Joe Gibbs:

crisis-site-gibbs

The Gibbs equivalent on the Burson crisis management site is a bundled-up cat:

crisis-site-cat

The nickname-defending site and the generic Burson site also include lists of “Facts.”

Among the “facts” on the nickname website is the claim that on the 1933 Washington team, “four players and then-head coach William Henry ‘Lone Star’ Dietz identified themselves as Native Americans.” While Dietz certainly identified himself as Native American, that oft-repeated piece of team lore was largely debunked by a Washington Post exposé that showed that Dietz “served jail time for dodging the draft during World War I because he falsely registered as an Indian.”

By contrast, here’s what the Burson crisis management template lists under “Facts”:

crisis-site-guy-fieri

The nickname site mentions the support of such figures as "[f]ull-blooded Native American entertainer Wayne Newton."

And here’s what Burson includes on its page as a hypothetical testimonial:

crisis-site-heston

When asked about Burson-Marsteller’s involvement with the website, Washington NFL team spokesman Tony Wyllie said he would get back to us; he had not done so by the time we published this story. Burson-Marsteller has also yet to respond to inquiries about its connection to the site. We will update this post if/when the team and the PR firm respond.

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Jeremy Stahl is a Slate senior editor. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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