As a lifelong fan of the NFL franchise now known as the Washington Football Team, my relationship to it now spanning five decades, I remember Super Bowl VII. I remember the lovable “Over the Hill Gang” that lost, 14–7, as the footnote to Miami’s perfect season.
I don’t remember that, in the spring of 1972, months before that Super Bowl season began, a delegation of Native American leaders met with Redskins President Edward Bennett Williams and urged him to change the team’s name, which means that the controversy over the team name is at least 48 years old. Williams tweaked the team’s fight song lyrics that year – most notably, replacing “Scalp ’um” with “Beat ’em” – and scrapped its cheerleaders’ black-braided wigs. But the name stayed, and an Indian warrior replaced the R on the team’s helmet.
I don’t remember any of those things, mostly because I was 5 years old, these events themselves were likely underreported and under-discussed, and everyone in D.C. was focused on the games. Heading into the 1972 campaign, Washington had managed only one winning season in its previous 17.
Twenty years later, Washington won its third Super Bowl with a 37–24 thumping of Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVI, completing the franchise’s best season at 17–2 and solidifying its claim as one of the truly dominant teams of that era. I remember that game, too (along with most of the games in between).
I don’t remember that there was a rally about four hours before kickoff in Minneapolis where more than 2,000 Native Americans protested the Redskins name and where both team owner Jack Kent Cooke and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue were called “racists” by the director of the American Indian Movement, Vernon Bellecourt, including this excerpt from Washington Post reporter Ken Denlinger’s story the next day:
“We say to Jack Kent Cooke, this is 1992. The name of your football team has got to be changed.” To other teams with Indian nicknames and to fans who support them, he warned: “No more chicken feathers. … No more paint on faces. The chop stops here.”
Representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban Coalition and National Organization for Women joined the protest. One protest sign read: “Shook our Hands/Took our Lands. For the Games/Took our Names. What’s Next?”
How could it be that I don’t remember these things? In 1972, I had some pretty good excuses, including the fact that I was a kid. What was my excuse 20 years later? What would be my excuse today? Washington Post columnist Jerry Brewer answered the question in his column two weeks ago: “That is the problem with normalizing the inappropriate. It makes right and wrong become fuzzy, indistinguishable. It can convince you to suspend critical thinking for decades and decades.”
Before you think this is all self-flagellation, please know that I have sympathy for the people who grew up with this name and want to hang onto it for a variety of reasons, including the sentiment that intends to honor Native Americans rather than insult them. A brand is a powerful thing. The Redskins were marketed heavily in the South, and many Tennesseans probably remember watching their games on local TV before the Oilers moved to Nashville.
Also consider that two major polls, one conducted in 2004 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and another by the Washington Post in 2016, found that 90 percent of Native Americans surveyed were not offended by the team name. But a more scientific survey from academics at University of Michigan and UC–Berkeley – using email responses instead of phone calls and introducing a Likert scale (offering scaled responses instead of yes/no) – followed in 2019 and contradicted the findings of those first two. Roughly half of the participants said they were offended by the Redskins name. Also, 65 percent said they were offended by sports fans’ performing a “tomahawk chop,” and 73 percent said they were offended by fans’ imitating Native American dances.
That’s enough for me. Borrowing Brewer’s eloquent words, “This isn’t an effort to erase the past. It is refurbishing the franchise and making it appropriate for the future. History is permanent, but historical understanding doesn’t have to be static. The hope should be that, as time passes, we grow.”
The name is a dictionary-defined slur, full stop. Miami University stopped using it 23 years ago. Dozens of high schools have made the same decision. Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians retired Chief Wahoo in 2018, and less than 12 hours after Washington’s NFL team made its decision, they announced they would “determine the best path forward” for their 105-year-old name.
Washington’s decision here is an about-face (owner Daniel Snyder told USA Today in 2013 that he would NEVER change the name and that they could use all caps in quoting him) that is less about saving face and more about saving money. None of this happens without George Floyd. Parts of corporate America are meeting the moment: goodbye to Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Mrs. Butterworth and Eskimo Pie. Redskins’ sponsors felt the pressure, too.
On July 2, FedEx – holder of the team stadium’s naming rights – released a statement asking the team to change its name. According to the Washington Post, FedEx also sent a letter to team lawyers saying it would terminate the naming rights deal and not pay the contract’s remaining $45 million if Snyder did not change the team name. Other sponsors, including PepsiCo, Nike and Bank of America, made similar demands. The day before FedEx’s announcement, D.C. Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio told The Post that “there is no viable path” for the Redskins to return from their present-day suburban stadium to their historic home in the District unless the team changes the nickname.
No wonder the team announced on July 3, the day after FedEx’s missives, that it was launching a thorough review of the Redskins name. On July 13, the name was officially retired. And on July 23, the team announced that it will go by a generic name this season as a placeholder until a new one is selected.
This is no doubt “cancel culture” in action to some and the end of (Redskins) history as they know it. I’m OK with canceling a racist slur and relieving my kids and the next generation of Washington football fans from the burden of cheering for one, because it isn’t necessary. What’s in a name? A lot. Ask Odysseus. But in the end, it’s just a name. Until the new one is revealed, hail to the Washington Football Team.