The Washington Redskins said they are undertaking a “thorough review” of their team name amid pressure from fans and sponsors that they should abandon the moniker commonly seen as a racial slur.
“This process allows the team to take into account not only the proud tradition and history of the franchise but also input from our alumni, the organization, sponsors, the National Football League and the local community it is proud to represent on and off the field,” team owner Dan Snyder said in a statement.
The move sets the stage to resolve one of sports’ most prominent battles over offensive team names. Washington will likely be renamed before the 2020 season begins, two people familiar with the matter said.
The announcement is the first signal that the nickname could be abandoned after many years in which the team, and the NFL, defended it. It comes a day after FedEx Corp. —the team’s most prominent sponsor as the name sponsor of FedExField, where Washington plays—said it asked the team to change its name. Fred Smith, the shipping giant’s founder and CEO, is a minority owner of the team.
Then on Thursday, Nike Inc., the NFL’s apparel partner, removed the team’s apparel from its online shop. That placed one of the NFL’s most prominent partners at odds with one of its franchises in a decision with potentially weighty financial ramifications. “We have been talking to the NFL and sharing our concerns regarding the name of the Washington team. We are pleased to see the team taking a first step towards change,” Nike said.
Bank of America, another team sponsor, said in a statement, “As a partner and sponsor, we have encouraged the team to change the name and we welcome this announcement.”
Similarly, PepsiCo said in a statement: “We have been in conversations with the NFL and Washington management for a few weeks about this issue. We believe it is time for a change.”
The decision was both long-awaited and jarring. There had been calls for years for the team to change its name but the team and league always steadfastly refused. But now one of the NFL’s most storied franchises could have a new name for the first time since it adopted the mascot in 1933.
The about face comes as the country faces a national reckoning on racial symbols in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Corporate upheaval has removed Aunt Jemima from syrup bottles and Confederate flags from Nascar races, as various statues across the country have been toppled.
The team’s statement said the review comes after initial discussion on the topic with the league in recent weeks. The league had been notably silent in publicly defending the name during that period, despite previous support for Snyder.
“In the last few weeks we have had ongoing discussions with Dan and we are supportive of this important step,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement Friday.
In the past, Goodell had supported the name, saying it was a “unifying force.” In 2013 and in 2018, he pointed to polling that he described as “overwhelmingly positive” and evidence that the name wasn’t seen as offensive. More recent research, however, has indicated Native Americans’ opposition to the name. One study in the past year showed 67% of people who strongly identified as Native American were offended by the term.
Snyder has vowed for years that he would never change the name. He maintained that stance despite criticism from local lawmakers in Washington, D.C., some of whom said they would deny him a new stadium in the District of Columbia over the issue. The team currently plays in Maryland.
Washington, D.C. officials have said that other than blocking a stadium move, they have few effective options for pressuring a seemingly immovable Snyder. They said they believed that only the league or the kind of public groundswell that has toppled icons from Aunt Jemima to Confederate statues in recent weeks would likely force his hand.
The re-energized push for change falls against the backdrop of a country amid upheaval against systemic racism and a month in which America’s most popular sport has pivoted to vigorously support that same movement. In a momentous video last month, following the killing of George Floyd and criticism from NFL players, Goodell said the league should have listened to players earlier on the subject and encouraged peaceful protests.
But the league’s invigorated social consciousness put it in a strange place with regards to one of its own franchises. The NFL began amplifying messages against systemic racism while simultaneously facing charges that one of its team names is racially charged.
The team’s statement included a quote from head coach Ron Rivera, one of a few nonwhite people to hold that position in the league, saying that the issue was “of personal importance” for him.
The politics around the team’s name echoed the fight 60 years ago over its racial integration. Under owner George Preston Marshall, Washington refused to sign black players. In 1962 it became the last team to do so, signing Bobby Mitchell, after Interior Secretary Stewart Udall told Marshall he would revoke the team’s lease on its then-new stadium in Washington, D.C. unless it happened.
Two weeks ago, the Washington convention and sports authority removed a statue of Marshall from outside the old stadium. The same day, the team stripped Marshall’s name from the lower bowl of its Maryland stadium — and replaced it with Mitchell’s.
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