POLITICS

Washington's NFL Team Is Finally Changing Its Racist ‘Redskins’ Name

After a half-century of opposition from Native American groups, the team finally agreed to stop using a "dictionary-defined slur" as its mascot.

Washington’s NFL franchise will no longer be called the Redskins, the derogatory and racist moniker that it finally agreed to change after nearly 50 years of pressure from Native American activists.

On Monday, the team announced the change in a statement posted to its Twitter account, following a review of the name launched by the team and the league on July 3.

The statement said the team has not yet decided on a new name. Daniel Snyder, the team’s owner, and Coach Ron Rivera are working to develop a new name, according to the release. 

The team, which still used the name several times in its statement, did not say when the “thorough review” would end or when the name change would take place. It is still unclear whether it will use the name during the 2020 NFL season, which begins in September.

FedEx, which holds naming rights to the franchise’s stadium in Maryland, said in early July that it asked the team to change its name. A day later, Nike, which has an exclusive apparel and uniform contract with the NFL, removed all Washington merchandise from its website.

The change is a massive victory for tribal activists and organizations that oppose the use of Native American mascots at all levels of sports because they contribute to harmful stereotypes of the peoples they depict. And it’s a major ― if long overdue ― shift for the NFL and for Snyder, who in 2013 promised in USA Today that he would “NEVER” change the team’s name.

The Change the Mascot campaign, which launched in 2013 in opposition to the name, commended the team in a statement that said it had “finally made the right call.”

“This is a good decision for the country — not just Native peoples — since it closes a painful chapter of denigration and disrespect toward Native Americans and other people of color,” Ray Halbritter, a representative of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York and head of the Change the Mascot campaign, said in the statement. “Future generations of Native youth will no longer be subjected to this offensive and harmful slur every Sunday during football season.”

“We have made clear from the start that this movement was never about political correctness, but seeking to prevent unnecessary harm to our youth, since we know from social scientists the many harmful effects this mascot has had on Native Americans’ self-image,” Halbritter said. 

Washington’s NFL franchise has used the Redskins name since 1933, when the team was still located in Boston. Tribal leaders have targeted the racist moniker since at least 1970, when a group of Native American activists met with team ownership to demand a change at a time when major universities such as Stanford and Dartmouth and other professional sports franchises, including the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, were reviewing and ending their use of Native American mascots, names and images.

The team remained intransigent for decades, even as it faced federal lawsuits targeting its trademark protections. Twice, it lost such lawsuits, although one was overturned on appeal and a second was undermined by a Supreme Court decision in a similar dispute.

None of the team’s owners faced as much sustained public pressure over the name as Snyder, a Maryland native and lifelong Washington fan who bought the team in 1999 as it was appealing the first trademark suit. 

During the 2013 NFL season, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York and the National Congress of American Indians, the country’s largest tribal organization, launched a massive campaign against the name. They ran radio and television advertisements and staged protests outside NFL stadiums where the team played.

The campaign rejuvenated the effort to rid the NFL of the racist name and put Snyder and the franchise on the defensive. Snyder and the franchise quietly hired a slate of prominent political consultants and pollsters to help defend the name and began playing up an origin story that painted the name as an attempt to honor Native Americans ― even as historians and Native Americans broadly disputed the basic facts of that story and reminded the team and its fans that the word “Redskin” is a “dictionary-defined slur.”

The movement led many newspapers, including The Washington Post’s editorial board, to stop using the name. And prominent lawmakers, including then-President Barack Obama and the entire Senate Democratic Caucus, joined members of the House ― including Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole (R), then one of just two Native American lawmakers in Congress ― in coming out against it

But Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell continued to deflect the criticism, adopting a cynical approach that argued, as Goodell did in a letter to Congress, that the name was  “strength, courage, pride and respect.” The team and Goodell refused to consider a change even after meeting with Native American activists and lawmakers in Washington that year.

The franchise, however, became increasingly isolated in its use of the racist symbol. From 1970 onward, activists such as Suzan Shown Harjo, who campaigned against the team name and others like it for decades, successfully persuaded thousands of high schools and colleges to change Native American mascots. In the 2010s, high schools nationwide dropped the names in larger numbers, as Native American students, in particular, raised awareness about the harmful psychological effects the mascots had on them and their communities.

The public and media firestorm over Washington’s team name subsided in 2016 after The Washington Post published a poll it said showed that most Native Americans had no problem with the name.

Activists and tribal organizations, however, pointed to flaws in the poll’s methodology and published other surveys showing that roughly half of Native Americans polled found the name offensive.

Meanwhile, Change the Mascot and other groups continued a campaign against Washington’s NFL franchise and other professional sports teams, including Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians, which uses a racist caricature of a Native American as its logo.

The outbreak of racial justice protests that sparked a nationwide reckoning over racist symbols and imagery ― including Confederate monuments and statues of colonialist missionaries  ― renewed the public criticism, especially after a monument to the NFL franchise’s segregationist founder was removed from the team’s former stadium site in Washington. 

The District of Columbia city council, Mayor Muriel Bowser and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s delegate to Congress, also reiterated their long-held opposition to the name and their position that neither the federal nor city governments would allow the team to relocate back to Washington unless the name was changed.

But it was opposition from FedEx — which the National Congress of American Indians has targeted since 2014 — and especially from Nike that created a tipping point for a league that appears to care more about how its public image affects its bottom line. The threat of reduced sponsorship and apparel revenues because of the name likely prompted Snyder and Goodell to launch the review that ultimately led to the team’s name change.

“Today marks the start of a new chapter for the NFL and the Washington franchise, beginning a new legacy that can be more inclusive for fans of all backgrounds,” Halbritter said. 

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