After facing intense pressure in recent weeks, the Washington Redskins of the National Football League have officially begun a review of the team’s name. A few hours after that announcement, the Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball also revealed a name change review is underway.
In a statement from the Redskins, owner Dan Snyder said: “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 of the field.”
The review “formalizes the initial discussions the team has been having with the league in recent weeks,” according to the statement.
A few hours after Snyder’s announcement, the Cleveland Indians acknowledged the organization is reviewing its name which dates to 1915, noting “our team name is among the most visible ways in which we connect with the community.
We are committed to engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.”
The discussion about changing sports team names, considered racial slurs against Native Americans, has endured for decades. However, the urgency and pace of action have ramped up recently due to increasing pressure from sponsors and stakeholders.
As Adweek first reported on Wednesday, shareholders and investment firms worth a collective $620 billion sent letters to FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo asking the brands to divest from the NFL team unless it agreed to change its name. That letter was driven by the Native American advocacy group First Peoples Worldwide; FPW director Carla Fredericks told Adweek on Friday that she’s “hopeful that this is a quick review process that also includes Native leadership at the forefront.”
The National Congress of American Indians, which has been leading campaigns for 50 years against the use of Native Americans as sports mascots, also issued a statement Friday.
“We are encouraged by the Washington NFL team’s announcement that it will conduct a ‘thorough review’ of the team’s name and mascot. This moment has been 87 years in the making, and we have reached this moment thanks to decades of tireless efforts by tribal leaders, advocates, citizens, and partners to educate America about the origins and meaning of the R-word,” said NCAI President Fawn Sharp.
“NCAI looks forward to immediately commencing discussions with the league and team about how they will change the team’s name and mascot, and a prompt timetable for doing so,” Sharp said. “Indian Country deserves nothing less. The time to change is now.”
In 2014, NCAI produced a commercial it hoped to air during the Super Bowl that called out the Washington Redskins for its use of a racial slur. That same year, the blog Native Appropriations published a list of over 7,000 Native American people opposed to the team’s name.
Earlier this week, FedEx asked the Redskins to change its name. And last night, Nike appeared to have pulled all Washington Redskins merchandise from its website.
Another team sponsor, PepsiCo, revealed that behind-the-scenes discussions with the Washington team’s management were ongoing.
“We have been in conversations with the NFL and Washington management for a few weeks about this issue,” a PepsiCo spokesperson told Adweek on Friday. “We believe it is time for a change. We are pleased to see the steps the team announced today, and we look forward to continued partnership.”
Nike added a further comment Friday afternoon, telling Adweek, “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.”
The pressure to change is coming from all corners
Nike has been particularly under fire from Native American advocates in the past. In 2014, journalist and advocate Jaqueline Keeler led a protest at Nike’s Oregon headquarters in response to the brand’s sale of Cleveland Indians merchandise with the Chief Wahoo mascot. Keeler’s Portland-based group Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry led the protest, as well as trending #NotYourMascot during that year’s Super Bowl.
Keeler told Adweek Friday that while advocates appreciated Nike’s Native-led N7 line at the time, “we just wanted the right hand to do what the left hand is doing.” She said it was “amazing” to see teams publicly declare action on the issue.
According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appears to favor the move.
“In the last few weeks, we have had ongoing discussions with [majority owner Dan Snyder], and we are supportive of this important step,” said Goodell, who earlier in June admitted that he and the league were wrong about player protests about racial injustice, while not specifically mentioning Colin Kaepernick’s name. Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began peaceful protests by kneeling during the national anthem before games, has not played in the league since 2016.
For his part, Washington Redskins head coach Ron Rivera voiced support for the review.
“This issue is of personal importance to me,” Rivera said. “And I look forward to working closely with Dan Snyder to make sure we continue the mission of honoring and supporting Native Americans and our military.”
In addition to pressure from corporate partners, the team was also informed this week by federal officials including Washington, D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton that it will not be allowed to move into the RFK stadium unless it changes its name. D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser also said in mid-June that the team’s name must change, and that the city’s NFL franchise “deserves a name that reflects the affection that we feel for the team.”
Though considered a step forward, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus and a member of the Laguna Pueblo indigenous tribe, was adamant about action.
“It shouldn’t take a huge social movement for a national football team to change their racist name,” Haaland said in a statement. “But the owner of the Washington NFL team dug his heels in and has only agreed to review the name. Though this is a positive step, we won’t stop until the racist name and mascot have changed.”
Fredericks said she hopes the controversy over the Washington team will push sports leagues to examine Native mascots overall; Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves, and the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks all feature Native mascots and imagery.
“There aren’t other sports teams named for living cultures that have been violently oppressed,” Fredericks said. “Native Americans should not be the exceptions to that rule.”