Editor's Note, July 23, 2020: The capital’s National Football League (NFL) franchise is rebranding as the “Washington Football Team,” reports Adam Schefter for ESPN. The announcement follows the team’s July 13 decision to retire its former name, which is widely considered to be a racial slur.
“For updated brand clarity and consistency purposes, we will call ourselves the ‘Washington Football Team’ pending adoption of a new name,” the team says in a release. “We encourage fans, media and all other parties to use ‘Washington Football Team’ immediately. The [previous] name and logo will officially be retired by the start of the 2020 season.”
Read more about the decision—and the retired name’s controversial history—below.
After decades of controversy, Washington D.C.’s football team is set to retire its name and mascot. Native American activists, among other critics, have long advocated for the removal of the name, which is considered by many, including the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Indian, to be a deeply offensive racial slur. The team, formerly known as the Washington Redskins, will keep its new name under wraps until trademark issues are resolved, reports Ben Fischer for Sports Business Daily.
Owner Daniel Snyder announced the change amid mounting pressure from sponsors and Native American rights groups. In recent months, protests against systemic racism and police brutality have swept the nation, sparked in large part by the May killing of George Floyd. The NFL team is one of many institutions now publicly reckoning with their part in perpetuating racism.
Organizers announced plans to conduct a “thorough review” of the team’s name on July 3. As Les Carpenter reported for the Washington Post at the time, the team’s statement did not address who would conduct the review, how long it would take or what it aimed to accomplish.
In a statement released Monday morning, the team says, “Today, we are announcing we will be retiring the Redskins' name and logo upon completion of this review.”
Snyder and others in charge of the franchise have faced increasing pressure from corporate sponsors. Retailers including Amazon, Nike, Walmart and Target paused sales of the team’s merchandise until the name was changed; on June 2, FedEx—the company that holds the naming rights to the team’s FedEx Field in Maryland—formally asked for a name change, reported JP Finlay for NBC Sports. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her support for the name change on June 12, adding that the current title was an “obstacle” in discussions for a new stadium in the city.
On social media, fans across the country chimed in to suggest new names: As Ethan Cadeaux noted for ESPN, suggestions included the Washington Senators; the Washington Warriors; and the Washington Red Tails—a nod to the nickname for the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military aviators to fight in World War II.
Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, urged the team not to pick another Native-inspired name in an op-ed published in the Washington Post on July 8. (That same day, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the rebranding would not feature Native American imagery.)
“Being your mascot is not an honor, nor does it honor the bravery of native people,” wrote Gover. “In fact, it would be doubling down on the way your team has mocked our history and culture, reinforced stereotypes and promoted prejudice.”
The Washington team’s former name has roots in the mid-18th century, when European colonists and Native American tribes came into frequent contact and conflict, reported Ian Shapira for the Washington Post in 2016. By the late 1800s, the term had begun to take on an increasingly violent, pejorative connotation, according to Lakshmi Gandhi of NPR’s “Code Switch.”
“[T]he word went from being an identifying term to a derogatory slur,” she wrote in 2013.
Mascots featuring Native American imagery proliferated in the early 20th century—a time when many young Native American students were forced to attend English-language boarding schools and “Americanize,” as Leah Binkovitz explained for Smithsonian magazine in 2013.
Though businessman George Preston Marshall established the team in Boston, he moved it to D.C. just five years later, in 1937. Marshall was a staunch segregationist, only allowing black players onto his team after the government threatened to revoke his lease on the D.C. Stadium (now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium). His was the last team in the country to integrate, observed Gover in 2017 in Smithsonian.
In 1972, a delegation of Native Americans met with then-team president Edward Bennett William to lobby for a name change and the removal of racist caricatures. Williams agreed to modify the lyrics of the team’s fight song, which referenced racist tropes about scalping opponents, but the name and logo remained.
Snyder, who bought the team in 1999, had previously refused to consider a name change despite mounting legal and public pressure.
“We’ll never change the name,” he told USA Today in 2013. “It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”
Over the years, the Washington team has defended its right to use the name in multiple legal battles, arguing that many Native Americans view the name as a point of pride. An oft-cited 2016 poll conducted by the Washington Post found that nine out of ten Native Americans surveyed did not consider the Washington team’s name “offensive.” But a 2020 study by researchers at the University of Michigan and UC Berkeley contradicted those results, finding that half of more than 1,000 Native Americans surveyed found the name offensive.
Activist Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) was one of seven Native Americans who filed the landmark Harjo et al v. Pro Football Inc. suit against the Washington football team’s name, according to the National Museum of the American Indian. When the court ruled against the plaintiffs, she helped launch a second lawsuit challenging the football team’s federal trademark. In 2014, Harjo’s foundational work in leading the fight against Native American mascots earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“The name is one of the last vestiges of racism that is held right out in the open in America,” Harjo told NPR in 2013. “It’s a toy of racism, and the people who are holding on [to it] for dear life, they know that.”
The legal fight ended in 2017, when the Supreme Court ruled that governments could not deny a trademark registration for a team’s name, no matter how offensive it might be, reported Ken Belson for the New York Times.
“I am THRILLED!” said Snyder in response to the decision.
In a statement released prior to the Washington team’s announcement, Gover and Bill Lomax, chair of the museum’s Board of Trustees and a member of the Gitxsan nation, expressed hope that the decision could lead to the removal of remaining mascots and names that appropriate Native American imagery.
“The commercial use of images and words that evoke Native cultures perpetuates racism and legitimizes racist acts,” the pair wrote. “As the Washington football team navigates its way forward under pressure from sponsors, the mayor of the city it claims to represent, and many other Americans working to build a fairer society, we strongly support sports teams and other organizations that end the use of Native American imagery depicting racism. Let’s get this right.”