LOS ANGELES The Washington Redskins may be out of the playoff picture for the year, but as far as the state of California is concerned, the team doesn’t exist at all.
State motor vehicle officials are trying to force former Redskin fullback Dale Atkeson to turn in the license plate on his Toyota pickup truck plates he received as a Christmas gift from his wife seven years ago which read “1 Redskn.” The word violates a state policy banning racially offensive terms on license plates.
“Everybody’s gotten so politically correct that you can’t hardly say anything,” said Mr. Atkeson, a blunt-spoken retired longshoreman from Manhattan Beach, Calif.
The state acted in December after receiving a complaint from Eugene Herrod, a board member for the Southern California Indian Center, a social service organization serving Los Angeles and surrounding counties.
Mr. Herrod said the word is an offensive term for persons of Indian descent. A variety of Indian organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians and the Cherokee Nation, have formally condemned the use of the word, particularly as the name of sports teams.
“You can’t do that with other ethnic groups,” Mr. Herrod said of Mr. Atkeson’s license plate.
Mr. Atkeson, 71, played for the Redskins from 1954 to 1956. In his first year in Washington, he led the team in punt returns, averaging 26 yards per carry on 24 returns, including one 99-yard return for a touchdown.
He received the letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles demanding the return of the plates shortly before Christmas. Since then, his story has attracted attention across Southern California.
DMV spokesman Steve Haskins said the state banned the word from license plates in late 1999, after an earlier complaint from Mr. Herrod.
Since then, 18 California motorists have turned in their plates, Mr. Haskins said.
Three of those motorists tried unsuccessfully to contest the revocation in court.
Although the word was not specifically banned until 1999, the state has long prohibited motorists from ordering custom license plates that are deemed offensive, racist or obscene.
“California is probably the most diverse place on the planet,” Mr. Haskins said, “and our policy is that we are just not in the business of offending anybody. We have to be very sensitive to our constituency.”
Mr. Haskins said it is not clear how Mr. Atkeson’s plate escaped the department’s notice during the 1999 recall.
Mr. Atkeson said the DMV letter in December was the first hint he has received that his license plate might be offensive to anyone.
Although Mr. Atkeson said the DMV letter angered him, he is trying to approach the matter calmly.
“Given the way things are going, what’s to get upset about?” he asked with a laugh.
Although other motorists have lost their appeals of Redskin-related plates, Mr. Atkeson has asked for a hearing to appeal his revocation order. No date has been set for the hearing.
Mr. Atkeson said that, if he loses the appeal, he will probably simply ask for the word “skins” the common slang term for the Washington Redskins on his new plate.
However, some Washington-area sports fans were outraged to learn of Mr. Atkeson’s plight.
“It’s certainly ridiculous to make an issue out of something like this,” said Robert Owens, 66, of Sterling, Va.
“The name of the team was adopted because of the bravery of the Indian people. It was meant as a compliment,” he said.
Mr. Owens “absolutely” opposes the California DMV’s policy of barring plates with the name Redskins or derivatives of that word. And because Mr. Atkeson acquired his “1 Redskn” plate before the DMV’s policy took effect, Mr. Owens believes the former Redskin should be exempt from it.
Tom Salb of Crofton, Md., thoroughly agrees. “I’m against all this about the Redskins,” the retired federal employee said.
Joyce Howard Price contributed to this report.