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Explained: Why the Washington Redskins football team is changing its name

The Washington Redskins has for long faced criticism for its name, logo and mascot. Why? What finally forced the change?

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Published: July 14, 2020 11:58:37 am
Washington Redskins, Washington Redskins name, Washington Redskins logo, Washington Redskins native americans, Washington Redskins football team, George Floyd, Racism protests, Indian Express The Washington Redskins logo is seen on the field before the team’s NFL football preseason game against the New England Patriots in Landover, Md. (AP Photo: Alex Brandon)

The Washington Redskins team in the American football league announced Monday that it had decided to retire the ‘Redskins’ name and the team’s logo, which depicts a Native American man. Both have long been considered racist.

In a press statement, the team said that its owner Dan Snyder and coach Ron Rivera were “working closely to develop a new name and design approach that will enhance the standing of our proud, tradition-rich franchise and inspire our sponsors, fans and community for the next 100 years.”

Native American mascots and logos in the US

Several companies in the United States use Native American logos and mascots, all of which have faced criticism over the years. While some companies have slowly phased out and stopped using this kind of imagery, others continue to use them. While “blackface” is a well known offence, relatively fewer people are aware of “redface”, the racist practice of dressing up like a Native American.

In April this year, the popular butter brand Land O’Lakes removed from its products the iconic figure of a Native American woman “Mia”, whose caricature had received criticism from many in the Native American community who had said they found it to be racist and offensive.

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Pressure on the Washington Redskins

For at least five decades, despite calls to change the name of the Washington Redskins, the team has refused to do so. In an appropriation of Native American culture, fans at matches have often been seen with red paint on their faces, and costumes, such as headgear worn by Native American tribal chiefs that is considered a sign of respect and honour. Native Americans say fans donning them in jest is disrespectful to their heritage and culture.

Over the last ten years, the Washington Redskins particularly faced criticism for the team name, logo and mascot.

Washington Redskins, Washington Redskins name, Washington Redskins logo, Washington Redskins native americans, Washington Redskins football team, George Floyd, Racism protests, Indian Express The Washington NFL franchise announced Monday that it will drop the “Redskins” name and Indian head logo immediately, bowing to decades of criticism that they are offensive to Native Americans. (AP Photo: Susan Walsh)

The team’s owner, however, stridently refused to consider a name change. In an interview with USA Today in 2013, Snyder said, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

According to an ESPN report, Snyder — who has been the owner since 1999 — would have even considered selling the team over changing its name.

In 2014, the US cancelled six trademarks held by the team on grounds that it was disparaging to Native Americans. Many US news organisations began refusing to use the term “Redskins” while reporting on the team because of its offensive and racist connotations. That same year, 50 US senators urged the National Football League to make amends.

Former President Barack Obama, too, repeatedly urged the team to abandon its controversial name and symbol.

In 2017, much to the chagrin of Native American activists, the US Supreme Court held that the team would be able to hold on to its “redskin” trademark on free-speech grounds. Snyder had then said, “I am THRILLED! Hail to the Redskins.”

What finally forced the change

A major push arrived after the death of George Floyd in May, when Black Lives Matter protests across the world have sparked renewed debates on racism in everyday life, including the use of offensive symbols and imagery in the corporate arena.

Don’t miss from Explained | George Floyd’s America in black & white

While pressure kept building on the Washington team from critics as well as fans, change became imperative when its sponsors decided to put their foot down.

Towards June end, key partners such as FedEx, Nike, and Pepsi were urged by their investors to sever ties with the team. Top retailers such as Amazon, Walmart, and Target said they would stop selling the team’s merchandise in their stores. On July 2, FedEx, with whom the team shares a 27-year deal worth $205 million since 1998, said that it would take its name off the team stadium in Maryland state, for which it pays around $8 million. The next day, the team agreed to a “thorough review” of its name.

Finally, the team decided to go ahead with the change on Monday. The new name and logo will be announced in due time and will not have any Native American imagery, reported ESPN, who also reported that the announcement of the new name has been held up due to an unrelated issue with sponsors.

Washington Redskins, Washington Redskins name, Washington Redskins logo, Washington Redskins native americans, Washington Redskins football team, George Floyd, Racism protests, Indian Express Native American leaders protest against the Redskins team name outside US Bank Stadium before an NFL football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington Redskins in Minneapolis. (AP Photo: Bruce Kluckhohn, File)

Will others follow suit?

The baseball teams Atlanta “Braves” and Cleveland “Indians” have also been urged to make similar changes for years.

In 2018, the Cleveland team announced that the primary logo of the team, ‘Chief Wahoo’, would be removed from the players’ jersey because it was not “appropriate” on the field. The logo was replaced by a large ‘C’ instead. On July 3, the team said it would look into changing its name, saying that it was “committed to listening, learning, and acting in the manner that can best unite and inspire our city and all those who support our team”.

In the 1990s, fans of the Atlanta Braves adopted a hand gesture called the “tomahawk chop” and began using foam representations to wave about during matches. Native Americans said this was disrespectful to their culture, but their concerns were dismissed by the sports team. On Sunday, the team said it would not be changing its name, but promised to look at whether it should continue the tomahawk chop.

So far, hundreds of school and university teams have also retired names and logos having Native American symbols, although more than 2,200 high schools continue to use controversial imagery, a New York Times report said.

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