Of all the derogatory terms and curse words you can be called these days, it seems as though ‘woke’ is the one that drives the most ire.
But is it woke to want to be more progressive and inclusive at the expense of traditionalism and ‘that’s the way it is because that’s the way things have always been?’
The term has made its way across the pond to the USA, where a number of elite sports teams are re-examining their name and identity in the hunt to do the ‘right thing’.
Chief among those, if you’ll pardon the pun, has been the controversial debate about Native American iconography – should these sporting franchises drop names, logos and other aspects of their identity that some might find offensive?
The NFL outfit Washington Redskins, prior to the 2020 campaign, bowed down to such pressures and have now changed their name, temporarily, to Washington Football Team until a more suitable moniker can be found.
The Cleveland Indians are also considering a name change of their own, however one outfit that is standing firm is the MLB franchise the Atlanta Braves.
Despite pressure from the Native American community, the Braves will not be changing their name, logo or their ‘Tomahawk Chop’ foam toy used to celebrate a home run.
Even in the midst of their peers having a rethink on whether it is appropriate to use such branding, the Braves stand unbowed – they will not be changing their name, although a consultation about the tomahawk mascot, which was described by St Louis Cardinals pitcher and Cherokee Nation member Ryan Helsley ‘insulting’, is ongoing.
“The Atlanta Braves honour, support and value the Native American community. That will never change,” read a statement from the Georgia outfit.
Whether that position changes in the near future remains to be seen, but for now Atlanta Braves will take their position amongst the ranks of those that have refused a name-change at all costs.
As we know, there are those that have since changed their name, so which franchises fall into which category?
Teams That Have Changed Their Names
As we know, political sensitivity and inclusivity are perhaps more prevalent these days than ever before, and so there has been a move towards the changing of names that might be considered offensive to certain groups.
- Washington Redskins
- Cleveland Indians
- Edmonton Eskimos
The murder of George Floyd has prompted a sea-change in racial sensitives in the USA, and while there’s still a long way to go on that front progress is being made – sadly, in the wake of the most tragic of circumstances.
As racial reforms became a hot topic in the summer of 2020, the microscope was turned on major sporting brands not doing enough, and first on the list was the Washington Redskins.
The term ‘redskin’ is deeply offensive to the vast majority of Native Americans. It’s a derogatory term that was used to distinguish them from marauding travellers from overseas, and the various tribes have fought manfully to have the word removed from the lexicon for the best part of a century.
Washington did relent in the end, but not without some reluctance on the part of owner Dan Snyder, who seven years previously had said:
“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
And you have to wonder how much of a role commercial, rather than sociological, factors played a role, with the likes of FedEx, Nike and Pepsi all indicating with words or action that they would stop sponsoring Washington if they didn’t relent.
The Cleveland Indians
Cleveland took their Indians moniker more than a century ago, and continued to use it despite protests and dissent from the 1970s onwards that this was racial appropriation.
But times have changed and, in 2018, the franchise decided to drop the Chief Wahoo logo from their uniforms and branding.
It would be another two years before the name-change occurred, with a spokesperson commenting:
“Over the course of several months, we conducted meaningful conversations with a variety of stakeholders, including Native American groups, fans, civic leaders, leading researchers focused on Native American culture and issues, internal teammates, players, and corporate partners.
“Ultimately, we found our organization is at its best when we can unify our community and bring people together around our shared interest in our home team – and we believe a new name will allow us to do this more fully.”
At the time of writing, it had been reported that the Cleveland management team have more than 1,000 potential new names to choose from ahead of the 2022 season.
On Friday 23rd July 2021, the MLB outfit announced that they would be known as the Cleveland Guardians from the start of their 2022 campaign. The name refers to the Guardians of Traffic, two stone sculptures which flank the Hope Memorial Bridge on the approach to Cleveland’s Progressive Field home stadium.
Over in the Canadian Football League, Edmonton’s local team had been known as the Eskimos for more than six decades.
But as awareness of using racially insensitive team names has grown in recent years, the outfit decided that now was as good a time as any for change – ‘eskimo’ is seen as an offensive term amongst many Inuit tribes.
And so the Eskimos became the Elks in time for the 2021 season, with the franchise’s chairwoman Janice Agrios stating:
“Institutions are being renamed around the world. The change to our name is part of a sweeping societal change.”
Teams That Haven’t Changed Their Names
Even in the midst of the rising movement against racially inflammatory names, some franchises are just ploughing on regardless.
- Atlanta Braves
- Kansas City Chiefs
- Chicago Blackhawks
Kansas City Chiefs
As already mentioned in this article, the Atlanta Braves are refusing to budge on changing their name and their iconography….they may be the last elite team in American sport to do so.
Because the Kansas City Chiefs, while refusing to change their name, are at least making some nods to progression.
They have banned Native American headdresses and face paint in the stands, while their own version of the Tomahawk chop is now conducted with a closed fist rather than an open hand – there are still calls for this to cease full stop.
However, we await further change as far as their name is concerned….
The Chicago Blackhawks have used a ‘loophole’ to defend themselves against accusations of racism – they claim their name comes from an actual Native American hero.
Black Hawk of Illinois’ Sac & Fox Nation is an ancient tribal leader who is still revered to this day amongst Native Americans, and the Windy City outfit claim the name is in adoration to the chief.
“We recognise there is a fine line between respect and disrespect, and we commend other teams for their willingness to engage in that conversation,” a statement from the Blackhawks read.
“Moving forward, we are committed to raising the bar even higher to expand awareness of Black Hawk and the important contributions of all Native American people.”