Native Imagery Controversy in Pro Sports: Washington Football Team


Washington Football Team’s new logo

The Washington Football Team, formerly known as the Washington Redskins, changed its name this past summer after years of protest against its controversial historical ties. “Redskin” is a slur that was created in 1932 to “confine native people to reservations” and restrict aspects of their culture.

Although protestors critiqued the immorality of Washington’s name for decades, the name change was mostly driven by threats from corporate sponsors. While many of Washington’s financial backers were pleased to avoid the name’s controversial reputation, some loyal and long-standing fans were troubled by the switch. 

Instead of choosing a new name, Washington chose to remain nameless for the 2020 NFL season; they will be known as the Washington Football Team until a new name is announced.

Social media platforms blew up with reactions to this switch, with some responding more positively than others. Mike Cernovitch, an American author, political commentator, and men’s-rights activist, tweeted “Washington Football Team is a bland, dystopian name that captures the zeitgeist of our offend-no-one age.” His strong statement voices the opinion of fans who viewed the old name as a timeless tradition and lament what they perceive as “cancel culture” censorship, despite the connections to the often misrepresented American history.

Conversely, actor Dwayne Johnson tweeted: “I appreciate the organization moving at an accelerated pace towards some progress,” showing his public approval for this progressive step. 

A 2014 ESPN poll of over a thousand NFL fans showed that approximately ¾ of those surveyed felt that the name did not need changing, and indicated that many fans found the name to be only slightly disrespectful, if at all. However, about 25% felt the name needed changing, and was disrespectful to varying degrees. This opinion had grown by 8% since a very similar survey conducted over 20 years prior. 

Washington Football Team president Jason Wright, a brand new hire and the first Black NFL team president, says that it’s “likely the team will play the 2021 season as the Washington Football Team, too.” Changing names is more complicated than it may seem: the team would need league approval, new logos and uniforms, and complete rebranding. 

However, Washington still plans to eventually adopt a new identity. This includes getting fan feedback. While testing the general favor of their followers, team owner Dan Snyder said that “if the fans embrace it then we would be happy to have [the Washington Football Team] as our permanent name.”

However, in 2013, Snyder said “we will never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” He described the former name as a tradition that the team was responsible for representing. Clearly, he has had a change of heart. Though he did not publicly address the reasoning, many believe that FedEx’s public letter requesting a name change contributed significantly. FedEx currently holds the naming rights to Washington’s home stadium.

A second name change in three years, though, will prove difficult for a $4 billion dollar team. A change in team identity requires large spending on marketing, advertisement, merchandizing of production, and social acceptance of another name change.

The National Congress of American Indians says that “‘Indian’ sports brands used by professional teams were born in an era when racism and bigotry were accepted by the dominant culture,” and are now exploited for profit by franchises worth millions. Despite concerns of racism, team owners capitalize on the harmful mascots with a complete lack of sensitivity. 

This leads to oppression in other forms, particularly pertaining to Native youth. Mascots such as the ‘Redskins’ “are known to play a role in exacerbating racial inequity and perpetuating feelings of inadequacy among Native youth.”

Although Washington was the only franchise to use a slur in its official name, teams like the Cleveland Indians (MLB), Atlanta Braves (MLB), and Chicago Blackhawks (NHL) also appropriate Native American culture in their nicknames. The NCAA has spent the past decade debating whether references to Native culture should be used in sports branding. Individual schools such as Stanford University, Dickinson State University, and Syracuse University have made changes within their programs to drop offensive names and logos completely.

However, in recent decades there has been a strong and growing support to terminate racist mascots in sports culture. “Hundreds of tribal nations, national tribal organizations, civil rights organizations, school boards, sports teams, and individuals have called for the end to harmful ‘Indian’ mascots,” says the NCAI.

In 2005, the NCAA made changes to its guidelines surrounding Native imagery at championship athletic events. Players, cheerleaders, and band members could not display offensive logos on their clothing, and images were required to be covered if they were displayed at the location.

Sports Illustrated has highlighted some alternative names that retain a “patriotic” or historical reference for Washington, which may be Snyder’s goal. These include Battle Hogs, Senators, Presidents, Founders, or the possibility of remaining nameless.