By the time they take the field this fall — that’s assuming there is a season given the coronavirus pandemic — the NFL team in Washington, D.C., might have a new nickname.
“In light of recent events around our country and feedback from our community, the Washington Redskins are announcing the team will undergo a thorough review of the team’s name,” the team said in a statement Friday morning. The brief statement, which itself included the word “redskins” seven times, also said the team had been discussing its name with the NFL for weeks.
That a day could come when the team would change its name, which many consider to be a racist slur against Native Americans, has long seemed unfathomable. “We’ll never change the name,” Dan Snyder, the team’s owner, said in 2013. “It’s that simple. Never — you can use caps.”
The change to that ironclad stance came just one day after two prominent corporate sponsors, FedEx and Nike, began backing away from the team’s name, which quickly prompted others to follow suit Friday.
Snyder has been steadfast in his insistence to keep the name, even in the face of governmental and activist pressure to change it. The one entity with enough influence to force the issue, the NFL, has always backed Snyder. Two years ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the team’s name should remain and that the league would not make him change it.
But in the last month, the ground underneath their feet has shifted. American society is undergoing a wide uprising over police brutality and systemic racism that flared after the killing of George Floyd in police custody, a widespread movement that has led to a reconsideration of statues, flags, symbols and mascots considered to be racist or celebrating racist history.
Statues of soldiers who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War are being taken down across the country. The governor of Mississippi signed a bill to remove the Confederate battle emblem from its flag, in part because of pressure from sports organizations. Corporate mascots like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are being phased out.
Long accustomed to doing whatever it pleased on account of its massive popularity, the NFL has scrambled to keep up with rapidly evolving public opinion. Last month, Goodell apologized for not listening to concerns from the league’s Black players earlier, and he encouraged them to peacefully protest — an about-face from years of trying to prevent players from kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before games to protest racism.
On Friday, Goodell indicated the league has been discussing a change with Washington. “In the last few weeks we have had ongoing discussions with Dan and we are supportive of this important step,” he said in a statement.
According to a league spokesman, changing the name does not require a vote by the league’s owners, and ultimately the decision is up to Snyder. In the past, he had the support of Goodell, not to mention team and league sponsors that collectively pay billions annually, in rejecting calls for change. This time, however, Snyder might find his position more lonely.
Already, the team has shifted itself in how it celebrates a racist past.
Last month, Washington said it would remove the name of George Preston Marshall from the team’s Ring of Fame and its history wall, and a statue of him was removed from outside RFK Stadium, where the team used to play in Washington. Marshall founded the team and moved them to Washington in the 1930s, and was the last NFL owner to integrate his team.
When the team changed its name in 1933 from the Braves, Marshall told team members to wear face paint and the coach to wear feathers on the sideline. He also had an Indian-head logo printed across player uniforms and used a halftime band that wore tribal regalia.
Still, there was little indication that the team’s consideration of its name could follow closely behind its distancing from Marshall. As recently as Monday, Ron Rivera, the team’s new coach, said during a radio interview that talking about the team’s name was “a discussion for another time” and that he was “just somebody that’s from a different era when football wasn’t such a big part of the political scene.”
On Friday, he was quoted in Washington’s statement saying “this issue is of personal importance to me.”
What has changed in the past four days? Perhaps the cost of keeping the name, as sponsors began to speak up.
In a short but pointed statement Thursday that did not use the team’s name, shipping company FedEx said it had asked for the name to be changed. “We have communicated to the team in Washington our request that they change the team name,” FedEx said in a statement.
FedEx isn’t just any old sponsor of the team. For the last two decades Washington has played its home games at FedEx Field, in a Maryland suburb outside of the District of Columbia. FedEx agreed to pay $205 million in the naming rights deal in 1999. Frederick W. Smith, the chairman and chief executive of FedEx, is also a minority owner of the team.
The team’s lease for FedEx Field runs through 2027, but in recent years it has begun the process of searching for a new stadium, canvassing sites in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. The Washington Post has reported that a stadium in Washington is Snyder’s preference, but this week local elected officials said that a return to the district is off the table unless the team’s name changed.
The team’s merchandise also disappeared from Nike’s online store Thursday. Reached Friday, a Nike spokesman declined to say why.
Other team sponsors have been publicly silent about the name for years, but after the announcement Friday they were quick to laud the team’s apparent change of heart. Pepsi said they had been speaking with the team and NFL “for a few weeks about this issue,” while Bank of America said they have “encouraged the team to change the name.”
There was no timeline given for when Washington would make a decision on its name, only that it would come after input from “our alumni, the organization, sponsors, the National Football League and the local community.”
Native Americans, and Native American activists like Suzan Shown Harjo who has spent decades pushing teams and schools to change American Indian names and mascots, were not mentioned as those whose perspectives would be considered.