Last summer’s decision by Washington‘s NFL franchise to abandon the “Redskins” brand was seen not only as a victory for those who had spent years protesting that specific name, but as a sign of broader change to come. Activists hoped that other American Indian-themed teams would follow suit.
But if owner Dan Snyder‘s decision to wave the white flag in his battle with critics of the team’s historic nickname was the start of a trend, it’s a slow-moving one.
Tuesday marks the official one-year anniversary of Washington retiring the old name, but only MLB’s Cleveland Indians have gone through with a similar announcement. Three other teams in major professional sports that feature American Indian names and mascots — the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and MLB’s Atlanta Braves — resisted overtures to rebrand.
Activists say be patient. The changes in Washington and Cleveland were years in the works.
Carla Fredericks, CEO of The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit aimed at helping American Indians, said she believes change “doesn’t happen in a vacuum” — adding that the overall equality movement for Indigenous people goes beyond the realm of sports. But she called Washington’s decision to move on from Redskins “important,” given the decades-long fight surrounding it.
She said there was significance in the fact Washington was the first to act, too.
“Ironically, [the Washington Football Team] set a really good example for these other teams,” Fredericks said. “It’s hard to understand why these other teams are really still entrenching themselves with these views, names that are part of a bygone era in American race relations.”
Last summer, Fredericks was one of the leaders of a group of investment firms that pressed FedEx, Pepsi and Nike — all major sponsors of the Burgundy and Gold — to sever ties with the football franchise unless the team rebranded. The pressure followed: FedEx threatened to end its naming rights agreement at the team’s stadium in Landover, Maryland, while Nike and a slew of other retailers stopped selling the team’s merchandise.
The threat to the team’s bottom line worked. When Washington put out a 100-word statement to announce the news, “sponsors” were listed twice — each time before “fans and community.”
Teams like the Chiefs and the Braves haven’t seen that kind of pressure from their business partners. Nike never pulled Chiefs gear, and United Airlines hasn’t threatened to stop sponsoring the United Center, the home of the Blackhawks.
Instead, the Blackhawks said they would invest more resources into the American Indian community and banned fans from wearing headdresses at future home games.
The Chiefs also put restrictions on headdresses, while the Braves said last July they were focused on creating a “stronger bond” with American Indian tribes. Neither the Chiefs nor the Braves, however, have banned the “tomahawk chop” — the crowd-fueled gesture fans at home games use to show their support for the teams. Some insist the gesture itself is offensive.
Washington team president Jason Wright, looking back over the last year, told The Washington Times recently that the name ultimately needed to change because of “its use of Native American imagery and racialized language.” For years, the Redskins in particular had been the main focus of activist groups as many considered the moniker to be a racial slur.
“It’s no secret why we began this journey” to rebrand, Wright said.
While the team weighs possible new nicknames — the Washington Post reported over the weekend that the team expects to unveil a new name and logo early next year — Wright said the franchise is determined to build a beneficial relationship with American Indian leaders, no matter what their new name ends up being.
He declined to mention who specifically the team spoke with, but reiterated that the team’s new look would not contain any references to American Indian imagery. He added there was a consensus that it would be the “right path.
“This process has exposed to us the very deeply-held personal feelings about our previous imagery and association,” Wright said.
So, does Wright believe that American Indian imagery needs to go throughout sports?
“In this moment, for our team, it is important to prioritize the views of those who have been disenfranchised and hurt by our historical use of Native American imagery and associations,” Wright said. “Each team has to go through their own process, and we are mindful that in many ways we’re writing the playbook for other organizations, who are facing similar decisions.”
That playbook appears to have been followed by the Cleveland Indians — who announced in December that the team’s name would be dropped following the completion of a rebrand. The major difference in the approach is that Cleveland retained its Indians moniker rather than go by, say, the Cleveland Baseball Team. But the baseball club has mirrored many of the steps that Washington has taken — receiving thousands of submissions for new names and speaking with tens of thousands of people regarding what direction the team should take.
In June, the Indians said in a news release they have narrowed down the entries to a list of around 1,200 names. The Indians said they were moving on to begin the vetting process for legal purposes.
Washington has done the same and appears ready to take the next step. A source familiar with the situation said the team is nearing the completion of its “insight phase” — getting feedback on names and ideas — and will soon turn toward the creation phase. In other words, that’s where the name, logo and other details will be sorted out.
Snyder will be involved in the rebranding process, even as his wife, Tanya, takes temporary control of the day-to-day business operations as co-CEO, Wright said. The NFL announced Snyder would voluntarily take a step back for several months after the league fined the team $10 million following an investigation into sexual harassment allegations and other workplace misconduct.
“As I have said before, they have given me the autonomy to make important changes and transform our business,” Wright said.
If there’s another impact that the last year has had on the portrayal of American Indian figures in sports, it’s that the general public seems to be warming up to the cause. In May, Nielsen Fan Insights released a study that found 46% of respondents supported Washington and Cleveland rebranding. That stood in contrast to a Morning Consult poll from July 2020 that found only 29% of respondents believed that “Redskins” should no longer be used.
Fredericks, however, argued that public perception should matter less when it comes to discussing this matter. “These types of caricatures are not appropriate and hurtful” to indigenous people, she said.
The push to get other teams using American Indian imagery to rebrand likely isn’t over, either. The topic, for instance, came up again in January when the Braves faced calls to change their name to the “Hammers” following the death of team legend “Hammerin’” Hank Aaron. Celebrities like actor Colin Hanks and former Braves MVP Dale Murphy supported the cause.
Last summer, Braves chairman Terry McGuirk told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the team’s expectation is “we will always be the Atlanta Braves.”
Of course, Snyder said essentially the same thing to USA Today in 2013. Seven years later, he relented.
“There’s a real opportunity (for Washington) to be an example in how to change course on racism and how to do so in recognition in that racism has harmed,” Fredericks said. “Considering the history, it was surprising they were the first ones to do this. It also presents an incredible opportunity for the team and the players, for the sponsors, to really be an example for others.”