In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a real sea-change in what is considered acceptable and what isn’t.
Episodes of old TV shows have been removed from streaming sites for their ‘questionable’ content around racial stereotyping, and now sport is having its own ‘wake up’ moment.
The Washington Redskins have finally confirmed that they will be retiring their name ahead of the 2020 season after criticism of its ‘outdated’ and offensive meaning.
A redskin was a name that Native American tribes took to distance themselves from travellers from Europe, but centuries later it is used as a racist and hurtful term against native Indians.
“[The name] gives the wrong message to the world,” says Ray Halbritter, who leads the Oneida Nation tribe.
“It’s derogatory, it’s dehumanising, it’s degrading and it’s high time this was addressed and changed.”
The NFL team have now released a statement confirming that they would be ‘retiring the Redskins name and logo’, with ideas for a new identity currently being draw up.
Pressure from Sponsors Forces Redskins’ Hand
Here is a question that unfortunately needs to be asked: did the Redskins change their name as an act of racial awakening or because their sponsors pressured them into it?
Cynicism aside, it has been reported by a number of sources that big name brands such as Nike, Pepsi, FedEx and the Bank of America all threatened to withdraw their funding of the NFL outfit unless they renamed themselves. And Amazon, Walmart and Target all removed Redskins’ jerseys and merchandise from sale in their shops.
Pressure from society had not proven enough for them to change their moniker in the past few decades, and so the possibility of having their main revenue stream removed clearly had an impact upon their decision.
The Redskins, as they were known, were founded in 1933 and moved to Washington DC four years later. Their owner, George Preston Marshall, was a firm believer in racial segregation and refused to allow black players to turn out for the team – a stance that lasted 25 years until the government threatened to remove them from the NFL unless they changed their ways.
As part of the Black Lives Matter protests, a statue of Marshall was damaged and has since been removed from the Redskins’ stadium – it is unlikely to return.
Braves Refuse to Budge on Name Change of Their Own
Of course, the Redskins aren’t the only American sports team with a name that can considered offensive and out-of-date.
In Major League Baseball, there is the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians – again, very near-the-knuckle names.
The Braves have actually put their head above the parapet and confirmed that they WON’T be changing their name despite protests.
They released a statement to their season ticket holders, revealing that a name-change is not up for discussion due to their strong bond with the Native American community.
“….changing the name of the Braves is not under consideration or deemed necessary,” it read.
“We have great respect and reverence for our name and the Native American communities that have held meaningful relationships with us do as well.”
More controversy comes in their famous ‘Tomahawk Chop’ celebration, which again is something of a slur against the history of Native Americans. The Braves have said they will review this, but that their logo, mascot and imagery will remain unchanged.
The Indians have been fairly quiet on the matter, although they released a statement which read:
“We are committed to engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.”
Name Changes Nothing New in Sport
There is a sense that sport and wider society – to some extent – is starting to wake up on matters of racial bigotry.
The Redskins are not alone in changing their name with a number of examples in the past, and the hope is that the Braves and the Indians will also follow suit.
The NFL has led the way in the past, with the Washington Bullets changing their name in 1995 to the Wizards after their owner – Abe Pollin – wanted to steer them away from the violent overtones of their original moniker after his friend, the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated.
However, Pollin unknowingly dropped his foot in it. While Wizards is a logical choice in an alliterative sense, a ‘wizard’ is also a rank within the racist organisation Ku Klux Klan.
A move to San Francisco in the 1960s persuaded the Philadelphia Warriors to drop their Native American imagery and mascot in favour of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Indians themselves removed their ‘Chief Wahoo’ branding (see above image) from their jerseys and signage in 2018.
The Houston Astros were formerly known as the Colt .45s – a handgun used by the American army, and their name-change came in the wake of pressure to reject its violent imagery.
The Tampa Bay Rays got their name by accident after owner Vince Naimoli originally decided on calling his expansion franchise the ‘Devil Rays’. Met with opposition from Christian protesters, Naimoli put two names to a public vote – Devil Rays and Manta Rays.
Devil Rays won an allegedly rigged vote, although the ‘Devil’ part was dropped in 2007.
And of course there was the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, who were formed in 1993 as a cash-in on the Disney film The Mighty Ducks. But Disney sold the licensing rights to the movie in 2005, and so the Anaheim franchise were forced to change their logo and drop the ‘Mighty’ from their name shortly after.