This article is part of a DiversityInc series: “What the #$@! is Wrong With Sports” CLICK HERE for more of this special series.
By Manuel McDonnell Smith and Chris Hoenig
In Port Townsend, Wash., the end of June marked not only the closing of the books for the 201213 school year, but also decades of debate over the name of the high school’s sports teams. The district, located in the state’s far northwest corner, voted on June 24 to drop “Redskins” as the nickname for its high school teams, following similar moves by other districts to also drop offensive names. The school had adopted the name in 1926, seven years before the famed Washington Redskins NFL franchise (then based in Boston) did.
The small town’s move was notable because the school board’s decision was made against overwhelming public opinion in the area. During a public meeting discussing the change, one man berated the board, saying, “The mascot has never divided us; you’re dividing us,” according to testimony listed in the local newspaper. Ultimately, the board sided with an extensive committee report and historical review of the issue that found that “the name is a cyclical issue rising and falling in the public eye, and it is always divisive. Yet this Study Committee also found from listening to the presenters and reading resource materials, that there appears to be room for the idea that our current traditions need not be a stopping point.”
While that West Coast community found a way to resolve the issue, the community surrounding the East Coast NFL franchise continues a heated debate over the use of the name. The team, listed by Forbes as the second most valuable football franchise, has been under considerable pressure to enact a name change. Pressure was ramped up by a letter penned by 10 members of Congress who declared the team’s name to be offensive to Native Americans.
One reason why the NFL may be hesitating to change the team’s name is the considerable business risk to the franchise, an issue that was recently explored in The New York Times. “Any time you try to reinvent yourself or improve yourself or cater to the needs of some, you run the risk of ending up as New Coke,” David Carter of USC’s Sports Business Institute told the Times.
The same article also discussed the trend of collegiate teams moving away from the use of Indian mascots. But convincing fans of professional teams is a different challenge altogether. An Associated Press poll conducted earlier this year found that 79 percent of NFL fans were overwhelmingly in favor of the Redskins’ keeping their name, although it’s worth mentioningthat this result represents a 10-point change in opinion on the subject since the last public survey conducted, in 1992, when 89 percent of fans supported keeping the name.
As debate over the issue continues, the Redskins and the NFL have publicly said they are unwilling to consider any change in the franchise’s name for the time being. In a response to the Congressional letter, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reaffirmed his support for the team’s current name, calling it a “unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”
Other Teams Don’t Face the Same Issue
Other pro teams with similar American Indianinspired names and mascots face only a fraction of the scrutiny.
Joining the Redskins in the NFL is the Kansas City Chiefs, named in 1963 after the nickname of Kansas City’s mayor, a former executive with the Boy Scouts. The Chiefs, whose name was voted on by fans, have an arrowhead logo on their helmets and play at Arrowhead Stadium. Their mascot, Warpainta man dressed in feathered headdress, riding a horsewas replaced by a wolf in 1989.
The 2013 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks are one of the NHL’s Original Six franchises. They have featured the feathered profile of an American Indian on their jersey for nearly a century. The logo was voted the No. 1 hockey logo by The Hockey News readers in 2008.
Major League Baseball is home to two franchises with American Indian names and logos. The Atlanta Braves are known for their “tomahawk chop” at games, and all but one of their minor league affiliates carries the Braves nickname.
Cleveland’s pro baseball franchise went through a variety of namesincluding the Lake Shores, Bluebirds and Napsbefore settling on the Indians in 1915.
Two basketball teams were named after indigenous people, though you’d never know it these days. The Atlanta Hawks were an original NBA franchise as the Moline, Ill.-based Tri-Cities Blackhawks, but the franchise changed their name and logo (to the bird) when they moved to Milwaukee in 1951. The Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, had a cartoon basketball-dribbling American Indian as their logo when they entered the league as the Philadelphia Warriors. Nearly a decade after moving to San Francisco, the team rebranded itself as the Golden State Warriors and dropped the American Indian imagery in 1971, focusing instead on its home state of California.
The NCAA pressured the University of North Dakota for years over its Fighting Sioux athletic teams. The association threatened to force the university to forfeit all postseason games in the early 2000s if players, cheerleaders or band members wore uniforms with the Fighting Sioux nickname or American Indian head logo. A 2012 statewide referendum officially ended the use of the Fighting Sioux as the team’s nickname, and the school’s athletic teams will remain nameless until 2015.
The NCAA has since instituted a ban on American Indian mascots, but one holdout remains: the Florida State University Seminoles. FSU’s use of the nickname and logo is officially sanctioned by the two remaining Seminole Indian groups (based in Florida and Oklahoma) and has been exempted from the NCAA ban.