Debate on racism renews calls for Washington's NFL team to change name

AP photo by Michael Ainsworth / A fan watches as the Dallas Cowboys host the Washington Redskins in an NFC East rivalry matchup on Dec. 15, 2019.
photo AP photo by Andrew Harnik / Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, left, walks onto the field before a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 30, 2018, in Landover, Md.

The recent national debate over racism has renewed calls for the Washington Redskins to change their name, with Native American advocates believing the climate is right for action despite no evidence team owner Dan Snyder is considering it.

In an editorial published Friday, the Washington Post called on Snyder to do so - and if not, then for the NFL to make it happen.

It could take that, or at least pressure from the league's other 31 teams' owners on Snyder and his club. A Redskins spokesman said the team had no comment on the matter, and the NFL did not respond to questions about the future of the name.

"Might be easier if the NFL as an institution or a corporation mandates the change because then it takes the pressure off of the Washington team themselves and Dan Snyder," said Arianne Eason, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser recently called the name "an obstacle" to the team building a new stadium and headquarters in the District of Columbia, which would likely be on land leased by the federal government. The site of the team's former home, RFK Stadium, is one option, along with locations in Maryland and Virginia when the current lease at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, expires in 2027.

"I think it's past time for the team to deal with what offends so many people," Bowser told Team 980 radio. "This is a great franchise with a great history that's beloved in Washington, and it deserves a name that reflects the affection that we've built for the team."

Snyder's stance

Snyder has owned the team since 1999 and shown no indication he'd make a change like Washington's NBA franchise did in 1995, going from the Bullets to the Wizards. When a 2016 Washington Post poll found nine in 10 Native Americans aren't offended by the name, Snyder said the team, fans and community believe it "represents honor, respect and pride."

A peer-reviewed UC Berkeley study co-authored by Eason and University of Michigan diversity of social transformation professor of psychology Stephanie Fryberg that was released earlier this year revealed 49% of the 1,000 Native Americans surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that the name was offensive. That number goes up to 67% among those who strongly identify as Native American.

"How do you poll the use of the 'N-word?'" said Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter, leader of the "Change the Mascot" campaign. "Are you actually going to take a vote on whether or not that's OK? If you're degrading and disrespecting someone, you should not do it, even though it's just a few people."

Since the May 25 death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, protests have erupted around the world, with much of the conversation centered on systematic racism and police brutality against black people in the United States.

"We are very much in a moment of reckoning around equity concerns in this country," Fryberg said. "At some point, the NFL as an organization is going to have to make a decision whether teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and the Washington football team should be allowed to continue to systematically discriminate against Native people."

Redskins running back Adrian Peterson said he would follow what Colin Kaepernick started several years ago by kneeling during the national anthem to protest those issues, quarterback Dwayne Haskins took part in marches and coach Ron Rivera said he supports players in their First Amendment rights.

Rivera said he launched an organizational town hall program for players and staff to discuss racism and that Snyder donated $250,000 to start it. Rivera, who is of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent and is the only Hispanic head coach currently in the NFL, has not been asked about the team name by reporters since he was hired in January.

And on Saturday, the team announced it would the jersey of Pro Football Hall of Fame running back and receiver Bobby Mitchell, with his No. 49 joining the No. 33 of Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh as the franchise's only other retired number. The club will also rename the lower level of FedEx Field for Mitchell, replacing the section named for former owner George Preston Marshall.

Mitchell, Washington's first African American player, died in April at age 84. The Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate their roster, with the move forced in 1962.

The news came one day after the removal of Marshall's statue at RFK Stadium. Marshall moved the team from Boston to Washington and resisted integrating the roster. The team's announcement of the change did not mention Marshall, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963 and died in 1969.

Time for action?

Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of Native American-led national nonprofit IllumiNative, doesn't want Native Americans left out of talks about racism and hopes players join the cause.

"It's really an opportunity to educate players from all backgrounds that in this powerful moment when they are doing the right thing and they are taking a stand for racial justice, they need to also be taking a stand on this particular issue within the NFL," she said. "There's got to be a zero tolerance on racism."

Initiatives including Change the Mascot and IllumiNative also protest against other Native American team names, mascots and traditions besides the Redskins. Echo Hawk believes the "Tomahawk Chop" used by Major League Baseball's Atlanta Braves and other teams and Native American imagery should be out of professional sports, though she and Halbritter take particular offense to Redskins, calling it a "dictionary-defined racial slur."

After the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Redskins' trademark in 2011, saying it offends American Indians, the team won a legal victory in 2017 when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of an Asian-American rock band that a 71-year-old law barring disparaging terms infringes free speech rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

It's unclear if recent events have shifted the thinking of Snyder, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or other team owners. This past week, Quaker Foods announced it's retiring the 131-year-old Aunt Jemima brand, and the owner of the Uncle Ben's brand of rice said it will "evolve" in response to concerns about racial stereotyping, while Land O'Lakes removed the likeness of a Native American woman from its packaging in April.

PepsiCo, which owns Quaker Foods, has partnered with the team since just after the Supreme Court trademark ruling in 2017. A Pepsi executive at the time said the name is "a team and league decision, in our perspective."

"We're looking at other big brands, and I think it's just a question of when," Echo Hawk said, adding she believes it's more profitable long term for institutions to "do the right thing" and rebrand.

She said it's not a leap to go from the concerns of protesters about police brutality to the name, citing a recent study that showed Native Americans were more likely to be killed by police than any other group when considering the size of their population. Fryberg and Eason pointed out science shows the existence of these names and mascots increases depression and suicide among Native Americans.

"At the end of the day, we should really be highlighting the fact that there are these negative implications out there," Eason said.

Halbritter hopes this movement is enough to change it.

"Given what's happening in this country, more people realize what dehumanizing other people based on race and its effect has on people," he said. "It's unfortunate that it took such a tragic event - tragic events - to come to that realization."