Will Controversial Sports Team Names Be Gone in Five Years?

Prominent Native American activist says yes

Could the National Football League’s Washington Redskins and other pro teams with names that some groups and individuals find offensive shed those monikers sooner rather than late? Perhaps in the next five years?

As voices for change continue to rise, and more media outlets—including Peter King’s MMQB—refuse to use the Redskins name in coverage, some experts see nomenclature shifts on the horizon.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a prominent Native-American activist and author, predicts that along with the NFL's Redskins and Chiefs, the Braves and Indians’ monikers in Major League Baseball and the Blackhawks’ name in the National Hockey League will be “all gone in five years.”

And she’s fervently rooting for “the tipping point” to be reached so that team owners will be left with no other choice.

“It’s time for professional teams to get with the program and understand what’s happening with society,” says Harjo, who serves as president of the Morning Star Institute, a Native-American rights group. “All of them (the potentially offensive names) have to go.”

The thorny issue seems to spike every year as the new NFL season arrives—and 2013 is no different. As the Redskins kicked off their season yesterday on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, losing 33-27 to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Oneida Nation launched radio spots in Washington, D.C., criticizing the Redskins’ name.

In the first ad to air, the Oneidas’ Ray Halbritter commends NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for denouncing racially charged language as “obviously wrong, insensitive and unacceptable” when Eagles player Riley Cooper used a slur against African-Americans this summer. Halbritter challenges Goodell “to stand up to bigotry again. He can denounce the racial slur in the team name of the Washington Redskins. That word, ‘Redskins,’ is not a harmless term. The commissioner can and should use the same words he used to describe the Eagles’ player.”

The Redskins declined Adweek’s request for comment, though team owner Dan Snyder famously told USA Today: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Associated Press that the Redskins’ name “has always intended to be positive and has always been used by the team in a highly respectful manner.”

Risk communications consultant Peter Sandman begs to differ: “I think there’s no way to keep that from being offensive, no way to use a slur ‘in a highly respectful manner’ … Despite the transition costs, and the possible disappointment of some fans, there’s a lot more to be gained than lost by changing the team name.”

Sandman says the Redskins’ name “will be gone in less than five years,” adding that “the sooner the team responds, the more credit it will get for responding.”

As for the Chiefs, Braves, Indians and Blackhawks, he believes they “may earn the right to keep their names.  If not, they’ll be gone too, in five to 10 years.”

One key from a PR standpoint, Sandman says, is for any team using Native American names “to find ways to ensure that its decision to do so does more good than harm in the opinion of the people whose name it is appropriating.”

Tom Megginson, creative director at Acart Communications, and a widely read blogger on social-issues media at Osocio, agrees that, “if the appropriation bothers Native Americans, then I think people should listen to them,” though he understands the resistance of teams and their supporters.

“I’ve talked to Washington fans online, and many of them are galvanized,” he says. “The ‘bad PR’ just makes them fight the haters harder, because team loyalty can overwhelm logic, decency and common sense. That’s just human nature, whether it be war, politics or professional sports.”

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