The Washington Redskins Should Change Their Name, But Probably Won't


The Washington Redskins face another legal challenge over the team nickname. A Native American group has challenged the team’s trademark, on the grounds that it can’t be “disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous and disreputable.” The petitioners face a heavy burden, though. They must not just prove “Redskins is offensive” but prove it was to a “significant” Native American population when the initial trademarks were issued.

Washington may win this fight. The question is why they are still fighting it. While most of the sports world has whitewashed a bygone era and moved on, “Redskins” lingers on the scene like a defiant, racist hemorrhoid.

Names such as Braves and Indians can be problematic. But none are so blunt and odious as “Redskins.” This name isn’t the mere appropriation of an indigenous culture as fodder for fear or ridicule. “Redskins” reduces the individuals mocked to just their skin color. If the name doesn’t ring as offensive as “the Chicago Darkies” or the “San Francisco Yellow Peril,” it is because we have been hearing, saying and reading it for decades.

The name is indefensible. Washington should change it. Getting that message through won’t be so easy. Redskins GM Bruce Allen said in a radio interview: “it’s ludicrous to think in any way that we’re trying to upset anybody.” That speaks to the problem. This is not active hate. It is “tradition,” which will make it harder to uproot.

Washington is a proud franchise, with a strong fan base and multiple Super Bowl wins. Admitting the need for the name change renders a part of that tradition tainted. It’s a weighty decision for a franchise with so much invested in that iconic brand. It would also require a personal admission from a generation of Redskins officials that they were wrong and they just spent decades harboring a form of racism. Good luck getting Dan Snyder on board with that.

Some fans might push for a change, but fans aren’t a concern unless they stop paying en masse. The only conceivable way change happens is legal action or internal pressure from the league. We’d take Snyder in a legal battle, and we don’t see action forthcoming form the NFL.

Roger Goodell may be the most powerful individual in sports, but he’s not all powerful within his sport. He’s a cypher (and often a flack jacket) for the interests of those that employ him. Unless the “Redskins” nickname becomes a serious problem for other owners, expect the league will stay out of it.