Imagine a professional sports team called the “Newark Negroes.” If the year was 1913, that name might make historical sense. But if they were still playing in 2013? It’s actually unfathomable—it couldn’t happen, and it wouldn’t be tolerated by American society.
And yet, each week, fans gather at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland to cheer on their hometown Washington Redskins—a name that many consider just as offensive.
If you’re not familiar with the historical baggage carried by the term “Redskins,” here’s how Josh Katzenstein of The Detroit News summarized it:
“In 1755, when the United States was just 13 colonies, Spencer Phips, lieutenant governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called for British settlers to kill Native Americans who resisted.
Instead of bringing the bodies of the Penobscot Indian Nation — who lived in what is now Maine — as proof of the slaying, settlers could return instead with scalps of the men, women and children they attacked, and those “red skins” earned them as much as 50 pounds.”
A poll of Washington, D.C.-area residents conducted by The Washington Post in July (margin of error 4.5 percent) found that only 28 percent of respondents thought the team should change its name. But interestingly, 56 percent of people acknowledged that the term was offensive to Native Americans, and 88 percent of people said a name change would have no impact—or a positive impact—on their support for the team.
That suggests that most people know it’s an offensive name but are reluctant to change it due to their own, positive associations with the team. I can understand that. I grew up in Maryland and rooted for my hometown ‘Skins for many years. Changing the name would feel, in part, like it would partially erase my fond memories of Sundays in the stands at the old RFK Stadium.
Nonetheless, it’s still the right thing to do.
This issue is quickly becoming a big crisis for the team. Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King said:
“I’ve decided to stop using the Washington team nickname. It’s a name you won’t see me use anymore. The simple reason is that for the last two or three years, I’ve been uneasy when I sat down to write about the team and had to use the nickname…Some people, and some Native American organizations…think the nickname is a slur…I can do my job without using it, and I will.”
Mr. King isn’t alone. According to the BBC, at least five news organizations refuse to use the word “Redskins” in their reporting: The Washington City Paper, the Kansas City Star, Slate, New Republic, and Mother Jones. And certain reporters at USA Today, the Philadelphia Daily News, Buffalo News, and The Washington Post also refuse to use it.
For his part, Redskins Washington NFL franchise owner Daniel Snyder says he will never change the team’s name. Never.
In fairness to Snyder, changing the team’s name could cost the team many millions of dollars. The “Redskins” brand name took decades to build, and changing it could compromise some of its brand equity. But the question is at what point that business loss becomes the less expensive of the two options. If reporters increasingly refuse to use the team’s name, the name “Redskins” would surely lose some of its brand equity anyway. And if the name becomes more stigmatized, you might find fewer fans buying Redskins memorabilia for themselves and their kids.
There’s a good precedent here, and it also comes from Washington, D.C. sports. In 1995, the owner of the Washington Bullets basketball team, Abe Pollin, decided to change the team’s violent-sounding name—a name change he thought appropriate since Washington, D.C. had such a high crime rate.
Pollin ran a contest and allowed fans to decide the new name; fans renamed the team the “Washington Wizards.” If public sentiment continues moving swiftly against Dan Snyder’s Redskins, he might consider using a similarly fan-based approach to rename his team.
Please leave any additional thoughts in the comments section below.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons