Last January, the Cleveland Indians announced that they would stop using their Chief Wahoo logo as a representation of their Major League Baseball franchise and on their uniforms. The logo, a cartoon-esque image of a grinning Native American, is undeniably offensive and racist to Native Americans and deserves to be phased out of the Indians’ public symbols and commercial ventures. The end of the Chief Wahoo logo has drawn the naming of the NFL’s Washington Redskins back into the public eye: the Redskins’ name, which is considered a dictionary-defined racial slur, has long been a controversial issue for Native Americans, Redskins fans, and the NFL.
Native American groups continue to protest the Redskins name and request that the franchise adopt a different and less distasteful title. Former President Barack Obama voiced doubts about the Redskins name while he was in office. In late 2017, a number of American Indian activists actually started an internet hoax claiming that the Redskins would be renamed the Redhawks. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has insisted that he would “never change the name” of the Washington Redskins; NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has supported Snyder, saying that he does not envision the Redskins changing their name.
Unfortunately, Snyder is wrong on this issue—as he has been on most issues relating to his football team on and off the field since he assumed ownership of the Redskins in 1999. The Redskins need a name change because the continued marketing and commercialization of an accepted racial slur is unacceptable for a modern NFL franchise.
Snyder, former Redskins players, and Redskins fans have contended that the franchise’s name is acceptable because it promotes the proud tradition of their team and of Native Americans, but this assertion is laughable. The word “redskin” is considered by many Native Americans to be a racial slur that diminishes them, with some even referring to it as the “R-word.” In any case, it is incredibly ironic that defenders of the Redskins name are more concerned with protecting an eighty-year-old football tradition than respecting the far older Native American traditions that were systematically obliterated by an expanding United States. Naming a team after a racial slur used to denigrate American Indians only piles on top of that embarrassing historical truth.
Among the professional sports franchises that use Native American nicknames—the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Washington Redskins—the Redskins’ name is far and away the most egregious. All four franchise names refer to Native Americans, but the Redskins is the only franchise that expresses that identity by using a racial slur. Mascot names like “Braves” or “Chiefs” portray Native Americans in an accurate and even positive light, engendering reverence amongst those teams’ fans towards Native American cultural and ethnic groups. The Redskins name, on the other hand, is in no way positive depiction of Native Americans.
Proponents of keeping the name point to surveys that show the public agrees with them. According to a 2013 Associated Press poll, 79 percent of respondents believed that the Redskins should not change their name compared to only 11 percent of respondents who believed the franchise should. A 2016 Washington Post poll found that 90 percent of Native Americans were not offended by the Redskins name, with 10 percent saying they found the name offensive (the methodology behind this particular poll has been disputed). Yet these poll numbers do not change the stark reality that the Washington Redskins are profiting from a public brand that is racially charged with little to no comparison in the professional sports world after the end of the Wahoo logo.
Despite these poll numbers, the possibility of a Washington Redskins name change remains a fundamentally moral question. Recent research shows that the mere existence of the Redskins name “subconsciously causes people to stereotype Native Americans,” which is unsurprising given that the franchise’s namesake is a literal racial slur. Native American activist groups are not protesting the Washington Redskins name simply because their people were historically persecuted: they are protesting because the Redskins slur is intimately bound up with that persecution. In short, the Washington Redskins franchise name normalizes the racially-motivated discrimination that they have endured at the hands of the US.
That being said, the poll numbers do present a business argument in favor of maintaining the Redskins’ name. Given the American public’s and Redskins fans’ general opposition to a potential name change, Snyder is not under much pressure from a business perspective to change the Redskins brand. Nor is he under much pressure from other NFL owners or Goodell, who have determined that the issue is not important enough to threaten the NFL’s bottom line. From Snyder’s point of view, then, it is easy to dismiss the calls for the Redskins to change their name when the controversy is little more than an annoyance to the organization.
If the social or political upheaval in the NFL has shown us anything this past football season, it is that market logic continues to trump social consciousness and morality in professional sports. Ideally, though, the removal of the Indians’ Wahoo logo ought to spur a franchise like the Washington Redskins to reevaluate their own brand—and the manner in which the franchise has profited from the propagation of a racial slur against a historically marginalized minority community in this country.
Besides, there are plenty of options for Snyder and the Redskins to turn to if they were to suddenly develop the social conscious that they desperately need. Options like the “Washington Warriors,” the “Washington Natives,” or the “Washington Federalists,” would fix the name’s inherent racism, perhaps also with minimal re-branding required for the franchise. The transition would be expensive, but Snyder and the franchise—which happens to be valued at $2.85 billion, third highest in the NFL—could certainly endure it for the right reasons.
Besides, other sports franchises have changed their name on the basis of social conscientiousness. The Washington Bullets, for one, changed their name to the Washington Wizards to avoid their previous name’s association with gun violence. Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis has resisted fans’ personal sentiments to change the franchise’s name back to the Bullets since he assumed ownership of the team in 2010. Changing the Redskins name would not be an unprecedented move for Snyder by any stretch: the Washington Wizards have already given him a model for how to conduct a franchise name change and ensure its continuation (and in the same region as the Redskins, too).
In order for a name change to actually happen, the social pressure on Snyder and Redskins ownership would have to exceed the economic basis for keeping the name (not to mention Snyder's personal opinions). More attention needs to be drawn to the wrongness of the Redskins name. Also, other NFL owners and Goodell need to stop being complacent in allowing the Redskins franchise name and pressure Snyder, as one of their own, to initiate a change. It is also possible that a Redskins name change will simply not be possible until Snyder no longer owns the team. Nonetheless, the name still needs to be protested to make a change happen under new ownership in the future.
When we think about the Redskins, we think first about the football franchise and not about the American Indians who are discriminated against through the nickname and whose historical struggles have been conveniently forgotten by many Americans. Therein lies the problem with the Redskins name that Washington fans and the NFL at large have to comprehend.
Changing the Washington Redskins name would be unpopular and costly, which makes it unlikely that Snyder would actually make the move during his time as the franchise’s owner. Nevertheless, replacing the Redskins name is the socially-conscious and righteous action to take. Hopefully, Washington’s NFL franchise can become an organization that Native Americans and football fans everywhere can actually take pride in without needing to reminding themselves that a name as brazenly racist as “Redskins” is still being celebrated.
The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.