For a few hours on Wednesday morning, a small group of Native American activists convinced the internet that Washington’s professional football franchise had finally decided to change its racist “Redskins” team name.
A six-person team from the Rising Hearts coalition, a D.C.-based nonprofit, launched an elaborate website that was nearly identical to the team’s page. And the site’s front page announced the good “news” that the franchise had decided to rebrand as the Redhawks.
“Native Leaders Celebrate a Victory as Washington Football Changes Mascot to the Redhawks,” a headline blared, in the style of The Washington Post. It and three other spoofed stories ― on sites that looked like those of ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report ― circulated across Twitter and other social media platforms to applause from those who have spent years calling on the team to change its name. Even the URLs mimicked the real thing, with only minor changes (the ersatz Post story, for instance, was on washpostsports.com, while the paper’s real sports page is at washingtonpost.com/sports).
It didn’t take long for the internet to realize the whole thing was a fake, and that the team and owner Dan Snyder, who has pledged to “NEVER” abandon the name, had not done so.
But that was precisely the point, said Sebastian Medina-Tayac, a Rising Hearts activist, Washington, D.C., native and member of the Piscataway tribe.
“It’s a tactic called a culture jam,” Medina-Tayac said. “What you’re trying to do is take up space in the online world through these grassroots tactics. They have millions of dollars to spend on PR, run social media, and have air time on TV. This is just a small moment ― about three hours on a Wednesday morning, where we were able to take up space to remind people what this was really about.”
“It’s not about honor and courage and bravery, and our honorable history or whatever,” he said. “It’s about a racist name that a racist person doesn’t want to change.”
In the past, Snyder has pushed back against claims that the name is racist, arguing that it “represents honor, represents respect, represents pride, hopefully winning.” He did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment Wednesday.
Rising Hearts’ campaign took months to plan and execute, Medina-Tayac said.
Native American activists have fought to change the “Redskins” name for decades, and the fight intensified in recent years thanks to lawsuits and high-profile campaigns against it. Pressure grew so intense on the franchise that it hired a team of Washington Republican consultants to help defend it in 2014. It was still fighting court battles to preserve it until early this year.
The campaigns from grassroots organizations have continued, but media and public attention have waned. Rising Hearts hoped its off-the-wall effort would renew public attention to the issue, and remind people what they had been fighting for.
“I was happy to see that some people were immediately calling it out as fake,” Medina-Tayac said. “That’s where the conversation really started. They were living in an imaginary space where the name had been changed. Now that they found it was fake, it renews that passion that it should change.”
He said they chose to rebrand the team, rather than specifically call it out as racist, to show how easy it would be to change.
“Our goal was to come up with a proactive message ― something that was positive,” Medina-Tayac said. “We’re not going to boo the Redskins, we’re going to cheer the Redhawks.”
By all indications, the campaign worked, at least in that it got people talking. Early Wednesday afternoon, the Washington franchise responded to the campaign on its official Twitter account:
Medina-Tayac said he was “thrilled” that a small group with little funding forced the team to respond.
“I just want to give my sincere thanks to the people running that social media account and the Washington football team for acknowledging our hard work over the last few months,” he said. “That is the cherry on top, that they actually had to respond.”