Never say never. The Washington Redskins are changing their name. The franchise announced July 13 that they would change the 87-year-old NFL team’s name and mascot. The controversy surrounding the team’s name has been ongoing for decades, but it was pressure from corporate sponsors that drove the final decision. The decision to change the name occurs during an onslaught of institutional name changes driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, and critics wonder where it will stop.
In 2013, USA Today reported that the team’s owner Daniel Snyder stated, “We will never change the name of the team. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.” His strong stance shifted when FedEx, PepsiCo, and Nike recently threatened to remove their financial support for the team.
Many people question the ethical motives for the name change and whether or not the term “redskin” is a disparaging label. In 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that the name was disparaging and canceled the team’s trademark registration. In 2015, the Fourth Circuit Court confirmed that decision, but the Court of Appeals vacated the decision in 2018.
While activists in Minnesota celebrated the pending Redskins name change as a victory, organic support throughout the public remains varied. Some fans lamented the decision but deemed it inevitable. Others voiced their opposition and potential withdrawal of their support as fans. Many felt that Native American opinion should drive the decision.
A 2016 Washington Post poll found that Native Americans were largely indifferent to the term “redskin,” and 73 percent were not offended at all by the use of Native American imagery in sports. This was based on the telephone interviews of 504 Native Americans across the United States.
Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany stated at a July 13th press conference that President Trump believed Native Americans would be “very angry” by the franchise’s decision. She quoted Native Americans such as educator Barbara Bruce who voiced preference and pride in the Redskins name.
It is difficult to find broad offense or racist sentiments about the term redskins in the Native American community. The few Native American leaders who signed a recent letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell demanding the removal of the Redskins name do not correspond to polled indigenous people only 4 years ago.
The Origin of the Name Redskins
The Redskins name originally came from former owner George Preston Marshall. When he acquired the team, it was named the Braves. Rumor has it that the name was a tribute to the Native American Hall of Fame Coach William Henry Dietz.
Coach “Lone Star” Dietz claimed to be a Sioux Indian, and Marshall purportedly wanted to introduce ‘Indian Football’ to the NFL. This style of football included more passes and non-traditional plays. According to some accounts, Marshall encouraged Dietz to recruit Native American players.
Although the team was previously named the Braves, Marshall changed it prior to the 1933 season. He was representing Native Americans in football, although some claim he was exploiting them.
The actual choice of Redskins above many other possibilities was really a lack of suitable options. He couldn’t keep the name of the Braves because only a Boston team could do that. This was because of the Major League Baseball Team the Boston Braves.
Really, there were only a few options that were easily pronounced. Redskins was a common nickname for athletes who played on other teams named after Native American notions. Additionally, no MLB team or NFL team had used it yet (some college teams had).
It is likely that Marshall had many reasons for choosing the name Redskins, and at least part of these stories are probably true. What is also true is that the word Redskins was not indicative of a weak or oppressed people. It conjured an image of a strong warrior.
What’s In a Name?
While the world suffers the COVID-19 pandemic, a different kind of virus is duplicitously hitting America. It is the elimination of all names and titles that could be deemed offensive by the many or the few.
Brands, schools, and the government are all grappling for the title of least-racist without consulting fans, consumers, or voters. Some of the changes are innocuous. Lady Antebellum is now Lady A. The State of Rhode Island no longer has to attach itself to the words, “and Providence Plantations.” More visible examples include Princeton removing former President Woodrow Wilson from its buildings. Lastly, there is a petition to change the name of Columbus, Ohio to Flavortown.
The question remains as to what change actually occurs when these names are eliminated. Does it bring equality to minorities? Does it improve healthcare and education among Native Americans? The answers to all of these questions are negative. All it does is cost money in a meaningless effort to pander to voters and financial backers. Real change requires democracy.
The knee-jerk reactions to change names in response to BLM is divisive to those who don’t support the change. Kansas City found this out when it changed a street name to Martin Luther King Jr. without the approval of its voters. After a 3,000-signature petition, it was put to a vote. Now, they must change the name of the street back to “The Paseo” after 69% of the people voted to change it back to the original name. Democracy won in this case, but it didn’t vote for change.
Whether or not the Redskins should have changed their name is debatable, but the fact that they did it in response to sponsors and BLM, as opposed to fans or any public survey, reveals a lot about the current push to whitewash American culture and history. Where will it stop?