The controversy of the NFLs’ Redskin’s name has been a persistent debate, dating back at the very least to 1972, when a delegation of Native American leaders met with the teams President Edward Bennett Williams, to urge him to change its epithet.
The origin of the word “redskin” itself has long been disputed by linguists, Native American activists who consider it a slur, and those who insist that the name of the Washington football team honors Indians rather than belittles them. The words known roots extend back to the mid-18th century, as colonists and Native Americans began to be at odds.
Many dictionaries and history books say the term came about in reference to the Beothuk tribe
of what is now Newfoundland, Canada. The Beothuk were said to paint their bodies with red ochre, leading white settlers to refer to them as “red men”. Historians argue Native Americans gave themselves the name, in regards to a ritual performed before battle, when warriors strategically covered themselves in black and red war paint to fight their last fight before death, to show allegiance and intimidate their enemies, while honoring their ancestors.
Fast forward to the 20th century, the Redskins was originally known as the Boston Braves. Then, in 1933 the teams founder George Preston Marshall changed the name of his football team, relocating the unit from Braves Field to Fenway Park. In 1937, the franchise was relocated to Washington.
The team has always claimed the name was switched to honor its coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, who identified himself as a Sioux tribe descendant (though some argue this to be false), along with honoring Native American teammates at the time. However, Marshall told the Associated Press in 1933 he discarded “Braves” for “Redskins” simply to avoid using the name of the professional baseball team, to steer clear of confusion.
Over time, various Native American activist groups have filed several petitions with the Patent and Trademark Office asking for the revocation of the team’s trademark registrations because the name is considered disrespectful.
In 2013, in an interview with USA Today, current team owner Daniel Snyder vowed not to alter the name. “We’ll never change the name,” he said. “It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.”
So what changed? Anyone who has ever organized for change knows the best way to get someone with power to take notice, where money equals superiority in corporate America, is to hit ’em in the pockets!
In a recent statement, the team said it would be, “retiring the Redskins name and logo upon completion of a review” demanded by its sponsors threatening to pull funding from the NFL team unless it considered renaming itself.
The most notable sponsor being FedEx, who signed a $205 million stadium naming rights deal with the Washington Redskins in 1999. The shipping giant notified the team in a July 2, 2020 letter that unless the team changes its name it will remove its signage from the stadium after the NFL’s 2020 season, six years before the deal’s expiration.
The two-page letter from the general counsel of FedEx to the general counsel at Washington Football Inc., the corporate name of the Redskins, was emailed just hours after FedEx publicly acknowledged in a one-sentence statement that it had communicated its request for the team to change its name.
More elaborative, the contents of the FedEx letter were summarized for The Washington Post by a person who read it but was not authorized to share specific details or speak publicly about it according to the newspaper. It noted that the team’s name, which is never mentioned, poses the risk of harming FedEx’s brand reputation and is inconsistent with its commitment to a more inclusive world.
This comes at a time when blatant racism is at the forefront of todays society, yet again. It follows the May 25th death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while under the custody of the Minneapolis Police. Although police brutality against people of color has been an ongoing atrocity for over a century, this very public murder has resurfaced issues of racial injustice and systemic racism. It also triggered a reexamination of statuary, symbols, institutions’ names and corporate logos that many have long been regarded as fitting or benign, but others deem as symbols of hate and oppression.
FedEx’s letter closed with the hope that a name change would help create a more positive public perception of the team, restore the team’s reputation and lessen the company’s concerns.
Whether it’s to rebrand the team, who’s audience turn out and team performance has been on a decline over the years, or as a sign of empathy for a group of people who have been racially targeted for centuries, change is inevitable.
Soon after FedEx’s announcement, three major corporate sponsors followed suit: PepsiCo., Bank of America and Nike. The companies issued statements in support of the teams name adjustment, as did NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
If Redskins owner Daniel Snyder refuses or stalls with rebranding, it could cost the franchise stadium naming rights deals, corporate sponsorships, sales of luxury suites and other stadium-related revenue, not to mention sports organizations already stand to lose stadium revenue due to the current Covid- 19 pandemic. That’s over a $400 million dollar loss in profits for the Washington team.
Perhaps the prospect of losing FedEx and facing an exodus of the squads other corporate sponsors proved more powerful than any number of protests or petitions, effecting team owners wallets.
Most of us would like to think Daniel Snyder’s motives have more to do with integrity rather than profits, since his 2013 USA Today interview. It’d be satisfying to know he finally realized just because something was acceptable back when the team first got its warrior stripes, the word Redskins has taken on a new meaning that offends the very culture it refers to, and a change was long over due.