The NFL team in Washington, D.C., has used and adamantly defended its nickname for 87 years. Indigenous Peoples have lobbied against the moniker for decades. Nothing changed.
Yet, it took only days for the now former Washington Redskins to change its controversial nickname after FedEx pledged to cancel a $205-million stadium sponsorship if the nickname stood.
“This is a clear example of ‘money talks,’” said Sociology professor Janice Forsyth, Director of Indigenous Studies and a researcher of Indigenous sports history.
“On the one hand, it’s about time that corporate sponsors stood up and did something. What commercial sponsors say and do matters. On the other hand, it’s very clear that this is a moment in time driven by the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing issues of equality in the United States and elsewhere.”
On July 2, the Washington franchise announced it would undertake a “thorough review” of the nickname. That announcement came the same day Nike removed Washington apparel from its stores and the same day FedEx sent a private letter to the team saying either the nickname or the courier’s sponsorship had to go.
On July 13, team owner Daniel Snyder and head coach Ron Rivera announced they were dropping the nickname and considering two different, although unannounced, ones.
— Washington Football Team (@WashingtonNFL) July 13, 2020
Forsyth applauds the team’s decision, but said it doesn’t go far enough. It should be less about marketing and more about equity and representation, she said.
“It begs the question of how far this symbolic gesture will go. For me, it doesn’t sell that well in terms of social consciousness,” she said.
Team owners and fans have for years insisted the logos and mascots are all about honouring Indigenous Peoples and not about making money. But now that their use may harm teams’ bottom lines, those claims have also fallen flat, she said.
“It goes to show the lack of meaningful connection they had in the first place. They said, ‘We’re in a losing cause, so let’s switch gears.’ It goes to show this is a commercial enterprise. What we have here is people who are not Indigenous speaking for Indigenous Peoples and claiming to do it out of respect and holding dearly to what is just a corporate logo. It’s hard to justify.”
That’s true also for pro sports teams in Edmonton and Kansas City (football), Atlanta and Cleveland (baseball) and Chicago (hockey). Some of those teams have recently said they will not change their names, but will work with Indigenous groups to promote awareness and respect.
College and community teams are also rethinking their names, logos and mascots in light of the public debate about stereotypes and representation.
All these teams, their sponsors and fans could make this more than just a gesture if they also spent time and money listening to and doing good with Indigenous Peoples – “making lives better and making humanity better, making life better for people on the margins,” Forsyth said.
“What makes this issue even worse is that Indigenous Peoples are part of the marginalized groups and have a long history of having their images and symbols and languages stolen.”