ESPN employees say racism endures behind the camera
By Ken Belson and Kevin Draper
The NFL team in Washington, D.C. announced Monday that it is dropping Redskins from its name, yielding to sponsors and Native American activists who have long criticized it as a racist slur.
The anticipated move, which also includes dropping the team’s Indian head logo, was first reported by Sports Business Journal on Sunday and followed by other news organizations.
The team, one of the oldest in the NFL, did not announce a new name Monday as it continues to evaluate possibilities.
A team spokesman had no comment. The decision to abandon the name after nearly 90 years came just 10 days after the team said it would review the name. The team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, had stridently defended the name for years.
Snyder said the new name, when it was chosen, would “take into account not only the proud tradition and history of the franchise but also input from our alumni, the organization, sponsors, the National Football League and the local community it is proud to represent on and off the field.”
The name change by one of the country’s most valuable professional sports teams comes after hundreds of universities and schools have abandoned team names and mascots with Native American symbols. Professional teams like the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL and the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball have resisted changing their names and logos, although the Indians dropped the mascot Chief Wahoo last year and recently said they would review the team name.
Washington, though, has been in the spotlight, in part because of its long and checkered history. The team’s founder, George Preston Marshall, named the team the Redskins, which he considered a nod to bravery. Marshall was the last NFL owner to sign a Black player, and only under pressure from the federal government.
Last month, Washington removed Marshall’s name from inside its stadium and at its training facility. The city of Washington also removed a tribute to him that was in front of the team’s old home, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.
Snyder’s shift from total resistance to grudging acceptance in just a few weeks has been remarkably swift in a league that often moves forward deliberately, if at all. But after the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody in late May, businesses of all kinds have come under pressure to increase diversity and change policies to emphasize anti-racism.
At the end of June, some of the team’s biggest sponsors, including FedEx, Nike and Pepsi, received letters from investors who called on the companies to cut their ties with the team. On July 2, FedEx, which pays about $8 million a year to have its name on the team’s stadium in Landover, Md., told the Redskins in a letter that if the team did not change its name it would ask that its name be taken off the stadium at the end of the coming season.
The next day, July 3, the team said a change was likely to be forthcoming, when it began a “thorough review of the team’s name,” after weeks of discussions with the NFL. Nike stopped selling the team’s gear, and Walmart, Target and Amazon — some of the country’s largest retailers — said they would stop selling Washington’s merchandise on their websites.
The boycott came after decades of pressure on the team to change the name, which many people (and some dictionaries) consider to be offensive. In 1992, Native American activists began a campaign to compel the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the team’s “redskin” trademark, a legal battle that the Supreme Court ended in 2017, finding that even potentially disparaging trademarks are protected by the First Amendment.
In 2014, 50 U.S. senators sent a letter to the NFL urging the league to step in. And across the country, waves of universities and schools abandoned mascots and sports team names with Native American symbols.
But more than 2,200 high schools still use Native American imagery in their names or mascots, according to a database of mascot names.
All the while Snyder, who purchased the Washington team in 1999, remained steadfast.
“We will never change the name of the team,” he said in 2013, a stance he maintained even in the face of pushback from activists, politicians and some fans.
What finally changed was, seemingly, wider American society around the team. After the death of Floyd, there has been a widespread reconsideration of statues, flags, symbols and mascots considered to be racist or celebrating racist history.
Now that the team has let go of its current name, it will have to find a replacement, a process that requires navigating trademarks and the league’s many licensing deals with partners and can often take years. Teams also want to use the name, logo and even new colors to forge a new identity, a process that can include speaking with sponsors, fans and other constituents.
Ed O’Hara, who has designed team names and logos for more than 30 years, said that dropping the existing name first will buy time for Snyder to find a replacement. The team’s existing colors are unique and powerful, he said. A good name, though, should have an easy connection to a mascot, be easy to say and be connected to the market where the team plays.
“The name is always the hardest part,” he said. “You get one chance to make this right for the next 80 years.”