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Redskins name change shouldn't be the last

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Davis VanOpdorp
July 13, 2020

After stubbornly committing to its controversial nickname, Washington's NFL team is finally on the right side of history. It's time for others with Native American monikers to follow suit, says DW's Davis VanOpdorp.

USA Washington Redskins football pitch
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/N. Wass

On July 5, 1933, the Boston Braves of the National Football League changed their name to the Boston Redskins, which stuck when the team moved to the United States capital four years later.

After 87 years, the name is officially being retired. Ten days after saying it would conduct a "thorough review" of its name, Washington's NFL team announced the news Native Americans had been waiting to hear for decades — it is officially dropping the "Redskins" name and logo.

This is a rebranding of seismic proportions. Just six years ago, Dan Snyder, Washington's principal owner since 1999, staunchly defended his team's name, which many deemed to be a racist slur against Native Americans. "NEVER — you can write that in all caps," he said when asked about a possible name change by USA Today in 2014.

And now, never finally came. The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer made US society, as well as communities around the world, take a good look in the mirror. It was only a matter of time until Washington was forced to do the same.

But the "Redskins" nickname was just one of many examples of sports imagery that many Native Americans find objectionable. The name's retirement was a long time coming, and now many more should undertake their own self-reflection.

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder
Washington owner Daniel Snyder long resisted doing away with the 'Redskins' nameImage: picture-alliance/dpa/CNP/R. Sachs

An easy target

In 2013, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) published a study calling for all Indian-inspired sports team names and logos to be changed. The NCAI argued that the imagery propagated stereotypes that exacerbated racial inequality and perpetuated "feelings of inadequacy among Native youth."

As monumental as dropping the "Redskins" branding is, the name was an easy target. Many dictionaries classified the term as "disparaging," "insulting" or "taboo." Members of the American media had long refused to use the name, merely referencing the team "Washington."

Public opinion was firmly against them. So, when shipping company FedEx, the team's stadium sponsor, and NFL sponsors Nike and Pepsi began pushing for a name change, the downfall of the Redskins moniker was inevitable.

But while the focus remains on the US capital and their NFL team, many objectionable nicknames, logos and traditions remain. When will their reckonings come?

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DW's Davis VanOpdorp

Who's next?

Washington will not be the last team to change its nickname. If the team called the Redskins can finally get with the times, surely others can too.

The Cleveland Indians baseball team, who have done away with its controversial "Chief Wahoo" mascot, appears to be following the Washington playbook. The team also announced earlier this month it would also do a comprehensive review of its name, potentially leading to another sports rebrand.

However, the NFL's Super Bowl Champions Kansas City Chiefs, whose logo is an arrowhead and mascot is a horse named "Warpaint," have yet to do the same. Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team and the Atlanta Braves baseball team, whose logo includes a tomahawk chop, recently defended the use of their Native American inspired nicknames and gameday traditions.

In Europe, Sweden's Frolunda Indians hockey team, whose name and logo is inspired by Wild West characterizations, has observed from afar. The club's director Christian Lechtaler recently told SVT Sport that while the club was "following developments" relating to Washington's name change, the club has not received any indication of "criticism or rebellion" regarding the team's name.

KAA Gent banner
KAA Gent, whose soccer team plays in the Belgian top-flight, claims their logo isn't a stereotypeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Belga/J. Jacobs

When faced with criticism from the US over its Indian headdress logo two years ago, Belgian soccer club KAA Gent maintained that the image "was not a racial stereotype," rather "a neutral image of a Native American chieftain." The logo's history undermines the club's argument — the image, just like the club's "Buffalos" nickname, was inspired by a Buffalo Bill Wild West show in 1895, a vaudeville play that often depicted Native Americans in a sensationalistic fashion.

Complex debate

With the Redskins nickname now history, these other sports teams are on the clock. But debates surrounding Native American team names aren't always cut and dry.

The Chicago Blackhawks were named for the 86th Infantry Division of the US Army in which the team's first owner, Frederic McLaughlin, served. The division was nicknamed Black Hawk after a Native American who defended his land from colonization in the 1800s, which in turn inspired the hockey team's Indian head logo.

Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford
The Chicago Blackhawks are named after an infantry division of the US ArmyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Kostroun

Similarly, the Czech hockey team of HC Plzen modeled their Indian headdress logo after the 2nd Infantry Division, which liberated the city of Pilsen during World War II.

A fair number of such teams also work closely with local Native American communities. In defense of their tomahawk chop logo, the Atlanta Braves maintained they "have a meaningful commitment to honor the Native American community."

But even if these teams want to reflect their local Native American culture and history, or honor it in some way, the stereotypical depiction of an ethnic group remains. Those iconographies aren't helped by fans showing up in headdresses, or chanting and waving their arms in questionable ways.

Washington's name change shows that even the most stubborn teams can be on the right side of history. It's time for others to do the same.