Washington NFL team retires controversial name
Under mounting pressure from sponsors and retailers, Washington’s NFL team will no longer be known as the Redskins, an offensive term for Native Americans.
The club began a review of the name July 3 and “will be retiring the Redskins name and logo upon completion of this review,” according to a team statement Monday. Dan Snyder, the principal owner, and Ron Rivera, the head coach, “are working to develop a new name and design approach.”
It’s a sudden reversal by Snyder, who refused for years even to entertain the possibility. In 2013, when the franchise was defending its name in court, Snyder told USA Today, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple.”
This time, sponsors and other financial partners left Snyder little choice. Earlier this month, FedEx Corp., which holds the naming rights to the team’s stadium in Landover, Maryland, told the team to make a change. Walmart Inc., Target Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Nike Inc. stopped selling the team’s merchandise. The National Football League said it would support a change.
“We appreciate the team’s decision to change its name and logo, and we look forward to the outcome of the next step in the process,” FedEx said in a statement Monday.
The support for the name change suggests the power of the current reckoning on race in America. Protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police in late May have expanded to target systemic racism across U.S. industry, government, culture and sports.
Before announcing a new name, the team potentially will have to grapple with registering a new trademark.
Many so-called trademark squatters have been trying to front-run the team’s change by registering potential new names with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, said Darren Heitner, the founder of Heitner Legal, a firm that specializes in sports law.
“I don’t necessarily believe the team would stay away from any names that were applied for,” Heitner said. “The team could simply pay off the owner of a registration and receive an assignment, but it could be a thorn in the side of the team.”
In a post on Twitter Monday morning, Heitner noted that there were already three applications pending to register the trademark for “Washington Redtails.” That name would honor the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous all-Black pilot squadron that flew during World War II. None of those applications were filed by the Washington football team. One application was filed jointly by two D.C.-area employees of Deloitte.
The NFL, the most popular sports league in America by a wide margin, has been grappling with the growing Black Lives Matter movement for years. Then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began protesting police brutality by kneeling during the pregame national anthem in 2016, a controversial demonstration that divided fans, players and league officials. In June, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized on behalf of the league for “not listening to players” and failing to encourage and support peaceful protest. He didn’t mention Kaepernick by name but later told ESPN he’d encourage a team to sign him.
The Washington team has a long history of racism beyond its name. George Preston Marshall, who founded the team in 1932, actively opposed integration; the team was the last in the league to sign a Black player. It did so in 1961, and only under threats from the government.
That Black player, Hall-of-Famer Bobby Mitchell, is getting new attention as well. The team retired his number last month, making him the second player in the history of the organization to receive that honor, and a section of the venue will be named in honor of Mitchell. It had previously been named for Marshall, who will no longer be recognized in the stadium or in team materials, the team said.
Late Sunday, “Hail to the Redskins” trended on Twitter, with several fans who both supported and opposed the move saying they wanted to sing the team’s fight song one last time.
Representative Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, hailed the name move in a statement Monday. “This change ends one instance of associating Native men, women and children with fundamentally racist branding, but there are many other instances and the people responsible for them need to make the same change,” he said.
Other teams with names inspired by Native Americans have taken disparate approaches to the issue lately. The Cleveland Indians baseball team said July 3 that it would consider changing the team’s name, a switch that reportedly might not come until 2022. The Atlanta Braves said in a letter to season-ticket holders Sunday that they won’t alter their name, based on conversations with tribal leaders, but will weigh dropping their “Tomahawk chop” fan celebration.