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The NFL’s Washington Redskins announced it will be changing its name.
The move represents a startling about-face for team owner Dan Snyder, who had previously insisted that a name change would never happen despite persistent criticism from Native American groups. The tipping point appears to have been pressure from sponsors like FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo that had threatened to cut ties with the team if the name wasn’t changed.
Washington’s name change leaves four remaining teams in major American sports leagues that use Native American names and iconography: The Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL, the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball, and the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League. The Braves, Chiefs and Blackhawks have said they have no plans to change their names. The Indians recently announced a reevaluation of the team’s name.
Native American activists have long campaigned to get teams at the professional, college and high school levels to drop names they say range from dehumanizing caricatures to outright racial slurs. The effort has had some success, but many teams have resisted change by arguing that the names honor Native heritage.
Why there’s debate
Washington’s willingness to change its name could signal the start of a trend that ultimately sees Native American mascots become a thing of the past. Though the debate about Native mascots has been around for decades, it has been infused with a new urgency amid the broader push for racial justice spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement. Since the start of protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd in late May, brands have felt increased pressure to address issues surrounding race. In this new environment, it’s difficult for teams to rely on the same arguments for keeping their names that they’ve used in the past, some critics argue.
Washington’s team name has long stood out as the most offensive of the major team names. The existence of the name "Redskins" may have provided cover for teams like the Chiefs and Blackhawks that use Native imagery in a less overtly racist way, some argue. Washington’s name change shows the power sponsors have that the average fan doesn’t: With enough corporate pressure, teams would have little option but to change their names.
Even in the country’s new environment around race, it’s hard to imagine Native American team names being completely eliminated, some say. Any name changes are sure to be met with intense pushback from many fans. For example, a poll of Atlanta Braves fans found that nearly 90 percent opposed changing the team’s name. Even if a handful of professional teams did make changes, there are still more than 2,200 high schools that use Native American names.
Even if the names remain, there may still be room for progress. Teams can distance themselves from the most offensive parts of their branding. In 2018, the Indians stopped using the caricature “Chief Wahoo” as their logo. The Braves have also said they’re considering ending the “tomahawk chop” crowd chant. Others could go as far as the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, which eliminated all Native imagery from its brand but kept the name. Partnerships with Native American groups — like the one Florida State University maintains with the Seminole tribe — can also help ensure that Native imagery is used in a respectful way.
Washington hasn’t announced what the team’s new name will be, though a decision is reportedly expected before the start of NFL training camps on July 28. Logistical issues, including a possible trademark fight, may delay the process.
Even if no changes are made, a healthy debate on the issue benefits everyone
“The time is right for this discussion. Change — in attitudes, sensibilities, in our understanding of history, and our deepened appreciation of racist assumptions about all those of color — is in the air. That doesn’t mean a name change is inevitable. But a full discussion is needed and important.” — Editorial, Cleveland Plain Dealer
The old excuses don’t hold up anymore
“Needless to say, the national conversation about race has taken a dramatic turn in the past few months, rendering that head-in-the-sand approach untenable. It’d be foolish to suggest that there has been a sea change in the attitudes of all Americans when it comes to race, but the reflexive defense of racism or racist institutions that we may have seen even a few months ago is not so easily and readily deployed today.” — Craig Calcaterra, Yahoo Sports
Washington will show other teams the benefits of changing names
“I say drop them all. The by-product will be a ton of money for merchandising and a pat on the back for ‘doing the right thing.’ It’s a win-win, and at this point, it’s the least that we can do.” — Dieter Kurtenbach, San Jose Mercury News
Native team names make teams’ social justice efforts look hypocritical
“Many people and brands are starting to grapple with the ways in which their organizations, and perhaps they themselves, have condoned and perpetuated discriminatory and racist behavior. As long as the MLB, NHL and NFL continue to allow the use of Native mascots these words will always be empty.” — Crystal Echo Hawk, CNN
Washington’s change puts pressure on other teams
“I've been looking at this stuff for years and the Redskins has always been sort of the focal point for the controversy. The Indians second, the Chiefs probably third. The Braves and the Blackhawks don't take a lot of heat for whatever reason. But at this point, I think all sorts of team names are now in play.” — Sports marketing expert Mike Lewis to NPR
Pressure from sponsors could force teams into changes
“Of course, these corporations didn’t just wake up one day and notice that the multibillion-dollar brand they were promoting is a racial slur against those that this nation dispossessed to create our outpost of settler colonialism. … Corporate sponsors are desperate to stay relevant to a younger generation that is more left-wing, less white, and far less accepting of the status quo.” — Dave Zirin, The Nation
The commitment to tradition might win out
“Sports fans love tradition. We remain rigid in our expectations out of tradition. We balk at change out of tradition. Sometimes, we toss aside critical thinking because of tradition.” — Jerry Brewer, Washington Post
Fans will push back against any name changes
“If you’re seeking to bring out passion from your listeners, there’s few things that work better than telling them why their favorite team should change its name.” — Tyler McComas, Barrett Sports Media
It will be much harder to eliminate Native mascots at lower levels of sports
“When you remove the politics of the fight around the Washington NFL team and look at how these mascot debates play out on a local level, where money is mostly removed from the equation, it becomes clearer why it is such a trying task to get people to understand that all Native mascots, not just the particularly heinous ones, are harmful. And why, long after the mascots are gone, there will be more work to do to reconcile why they lasted as long as they did.” — Nick Martin, New Republic
Native names honor the spirit of Native Americans
“I always took it as, from the time I was a child or a teen, that it was an acknowledgement of the warrior spirit of Native Americans, and their strength, and so forth. To me, the only thing that’s derogatory is Redskins. That’s kind of indefensible. But all the rest of the names, Warriors, Chiefs, Braves, all of that is an acknowledgement of the strength and the courage and the warrior spirit of Native Americans throughout history.” — Richard G. Sneed, principal chief of the eastern band of Cherokee Indians to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images