New Commanders ownership has reignited the debate over the NFL team’s old name

A day after assuming control of the Washington Commanders, Josh Harris beamed about taking over the NFL team he and co-owner Mitch Rales rooted for as kids.

“I grew up with Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer, Joe Theismann, Mark Rypien, Doug Williams, Joe Gibbs, the Hogs, Darrell Green, John Riggins and the rest of these legends and three Super Bowl championships,” Harris said. “The then-Redskins were the team that everyone wanted to be a part of.”


Rales talked about moving to the area and giving up the Pittsburgh Steelers for the “then-Redskins.” The team hasn’t been called that since 2020 when Dan Snyder, under pressure from sponsors during the national reckoning on racism following the death of George Floyd, dropped the name he insisted over two decades as owner he’d never abandon. With the group led by Harris that also includes Magic Johnson now referencing the former name, the debate is raging again over what the storied franchise is called today and should be moving forward.

While it’s almost certain Washington won’t be the Redskins again, advocates on both sides and experts watching carefully are split on the path forward less than two years since the Commanders re-brand.

“The Washington Redskins used to be probably a top-10 NFL brand,” said Michael Lewis, an Emory University marketing professor who specializes in sports marketing and analytics. “When I look at the data these days, they are probably the worst on just about every marketing metric. And so (the new owners) may have the intuition that we’ve got to steer it back to that heritage.”

That was certainly coach Ron Rivera’s message. When NBA star Kevin Durant made an appearance at training camp, Rivera said he knew “how much of a Washington Redskins/Commanders fan” he is. That came a week after Harris, Rales and Johnson publicly said the old name, which had been shunned over the past three years.

“Mr. Harris and that ownership group talked extensively about bringing back the glory,” Rivera said. “What Coach Gibbs did, the traditions, that alumni group of guys that are around, it’s hard to escape it. It really is. And that’s just the truth of the matter. And just so everybody knows, we do that with the utmost respect for the native tribes, for the American Indian. Any time that’s brought up, it is brought up with the utmost of respect.”

Native American advocacy groups that fought to get rid of the name and others around sports don’t see it that way. Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of the Native American-led nonprofit IllumiNative, said she was shocked, disgusted and stunned to hear the old name spoken again openly by team officials.

“It just felt like we slid back,” she said. “After everything that happened and the hard-fought victory to finally retire the dictionary-defined racial slur and everything that came post-George Floyd, it is just mind-blowing to me.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary’s entry for “redskin” says it is “now considered by many to be an offensive term.”

One group pushing for the old name to return argues the opposite. Billy Dieckman of the Native American Guardians Association, which has started a petition to bring back the old name, contends the term refers to a Native bloodroot ceremony for warriors, not a reference to skin color.

“It’s a status symbol. It’s not about ethnicity,” said Dieckman, whose name as a member of the Kiowa Tribe in Oklahoma is Tsay Goon Pi Tahlee. “The fact that (the new owners are) actually using the terminology again means a lot because it’s like they have an opportunity for a fresh start, and if they want to get that fresh start, this is the perfect opportunity.”

A fresh start is possible, but a return to the old name doesn’t appear in the cards. Team president Jason Wright, who was hired by Snyder in the summer of 2020 to run the business side of the organization and has remained in that job under new ownership, said on Washington radio last week it was “not being considered — period.”

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