Over the Fourth of July weekend, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder announced that the team is undergoing a “formal review” over whether to change the team’s name.
It was a stunning reversal from Snyder, who said he would “never” change it in 2013. That now feels like a lifetime ago after the social protests of Black Lives Matter and financial pressure from Nike, Pepsi, Inova, Bank of America and stadium sponsor FedEx.
The cause is tackled in the upcoming documentary “Imagining the Indian” by Aviva Kempner (“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”), Kevin Blackistone (ESPN’s “Around the Horn”), Sam Bardley (ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary on Len Bias) and Ben West (son of W. Richard West, co-founder of the National Museum of the American Indian).
“There’s a whole new mood in the country and it just isn’t among Native Americans,” Kempner told WTOP. “The very sad and painful recording of the death of an innocent African American man broke the bubble [and] is now leading to different awakenings.”
The film is executive produced by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and features interviews with civil rights activist Suzan Harjo of both the Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee tribes. The loudest opposition has come from the Oneida Indian Nation.
“I used to do legal work in the Native American world … then I switched to filmmaking,” Kempner said. “I’ve never seen such an opening of awareness as [the] summer of 2020.”
While Kempner admits she isn’t a football fan, Blackistone grew up a diehard fan of the burgundy and gold with his father, who grew up in LeDroit Park near old Griffith Stadium.
“He was a season ticket holder with his friends back in the 1950s,” Blackistone told WTOP. “[Founder] George Preston Marshall refused to integrate his team. They were the last all-white team. … My father and a handful of his Black buddies started boycotting the games and going to watch NFL games up in Baltimore until the team integrated.”
Once Bobby Mitchell integrated in 1962, Blackistone rooted for the team for 30 years, witnessing four Super Bowl appearances and three victories in 1983, 1988 and 1992.
Still, he never really thought about the name until he saw Native Americans protesting outside the Metrodome while covering the team’s last Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
“That was the first time I ever thought about it,” Blackistone said. “I thought about it more and more when I wrote a column about an NAACP protest in Midland, Texas against the name Midland Lee High School…named after Robert E. Lee…I began to think, ‘If I am upset [at that], now I understand what I saw on a street corner in Minneapolis in 1992.'”
Blackistone has since stopped using the name in The Washington Post.
“I’ve almost successfully stopped saying it, even though I grew up with it like oxygen,” Blackistone said. “I’ve been working on this documentary since 2014 … when it looked like the nickname was at a precipice due to a trademark ruling against the franchise.”
That decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court in 2017 in a ruling that said the rock band The Slants could keep their name despite objections from offended Asians.
“That kind of stopped some of the momentum, but I still knew the momentum was there and I continued to work on this project,” Blackistone said.
The idea of changing the name is tougher for team legends like Mark Moseley, Super Bowl-winning kicker and the only special teams player to ever win the NFL MVP.
“I carry the same thing as Darrell Green, Art Monk…they’re great Redskins,” Moseley told WTOP. “If you change the name, you take that away from them. … I know what I gave [and] how much pride I took in being a Washington Redskin. … Every ounce of energy, blood, sweat and tears. … I wouldn’t want to take that away, but things change.”
The team insists the logo was designed by Walter Wetzel, former President of the National Congress of American Indians and Chairman of the Blackfeet Nation. In 1972, Wetzel patterned the logo after the Buffalo nickel minted by the U.S. government.
“I don’t know of too many players that would object either way,” Moseley said. “I think most of them would rather keep the name ‘Redskins’ because we feel honored we had a chance to play under that banner. … To change that name would be a hard one for us.”
Today, Moseley is president of the team’s alumni association, joining Gary Clark and Ricky Ervins on team visits to Native American reservations to discuss the name issue with indigenous people.
“Mr. Snyder took us out because he wanted to know if we were disrespecting anybody,” Moseley said. “I’ve traveled all over for the team, meeting with the different heads of the councils. … I’ve been aware of the plight of Native American people. That’s what needs to be addressed. … This name change is not going to change the way they’re treated.”
In the past, the team has also pointed to a 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll and 2016 Washington Post poll that found 90 percent of Native Americans aren’t offended.
“We came back with the same conclusion that The Washington Post had, which came back positive,” Moseley said. “They spent a lot of time to make sure [it] was a legitimate survey. … I’m sure if we positively knew that this name was really hurting people and being disrespectful to people, we would very much consider doing something about it.”
Critics, like these documentary filmmakers, remain skeptical of the poll methodology.
“So many people, especially in the Native American community, question the poll,” Kempner said. “Since then, two other polls have happened, and the findings were completely opposite. … The findings of subsequent polls show that, in fact, the Native American community is very opposed to the name of the Washington football team.”
She’s referring to a 2020 study by the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, which concluded: “While Native Americans in our sample generally opposed Native mascots, especially the Redskins … stronger Native identification (behavioral engagement and identity centrality) predicted greater opposition.”
“Polling for morality is not a great thing to do,” Blackistone said. “For every poll that you can find where it leans one way, you can find it done by other people where it leans another. … We will certainly address the polling issue [in the film]. Despite the polls, more and more schools each and every year remove this imagery and such nicknames.”
Today, 49 high schools wear the name, including Red Mesa High School in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, which is 97% Native American. Snyder has long seen this as validation. However, critics say it’s similar to a hip-hop artist using the “n-word,” that it should only be used by members of the culture reclaiming it, but never by outsiders appropriating it.
Currently, Webster’s Dictionary defines “Redskins” as “usually offensive.” Defenders argue that it merely means red face paint. Critics make a much darker case, that it was a term for white settlers paying bounties to bring back Native American scalps. As for Moseley, he tries to make the pragmatic argument that language evolves over time.
“They associate it with the Washington Redskins football team,” Moseley said. “When I go home [to Texas] I’m 16 miles away from the Alabama Coushatta Reservation. I run into people all the time, but when I come in somewhere, and they say, ‘There’s a Redskin in here,’ they don’t think of the Native Americans, they’re thinking of Mark Moseley.”
This may be a fair point, but it seems that the team is losing its stomach for semantics.
“No one could foresee what happened in the past six weeks,” Blackistone said. “You really have to start with the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century [and] genocide committed against Native Americans. You see that coming together in the past weeks with people attacking images of the Confederacy, as well as Christopher Columbus.”
This national reckoning forced NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to publicly change his stance on Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem. In the nation’s capital, the team removed a monument to Marshall and removed his name from the stadium Ring of Honor the same weekend that it retired Mitchell’s No. 49 for breaking the color barrier.
Now, Snyder’s statement promises that the franchise will conduct a formal review that “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.”
Goodell responded with an official league statement, saying, “In the last few weeks, we’ve had ongoing discussions with Dan, and we are supportive of this important step.”
Meanwhile, head coach Ron Rivera first called it “a discussion for another time” before saying the issue “is of personal importance.” Rivera has reportedly been discussing it with Snyder for a month, saying, “it would be awesome” to change it before the season.
“This is just about doing the right thing,” Blackistone said. “We, as Black people, get upset when we see people appropriating our culture. … Well, if we’re a fan of this team and we wear this nickname and we wear these feathers, we are appropriating the culture of someone else for our own selfish desires. That’s something we need to reckon with.”
“In a city that I grew up in where our reputation became known [as] Chocolate City because it’s a predominantly Black city … we Black people who are fans of this team should be sensitive to this issue, just as Dan Snyder, who is Jewish, should be sensitive.”
“There’s a word in Yiddish,” Kempner said. “Dan Snyder, be a mensch.”
It’s more than just a name, it’s the entire mythology of the American West. Just as kids play “Cowboys and Indians,” the NFL promoted “Cowboys vs. Redskins” games on Thanksgiving. Late fan Chief Zee wore a headdress shouting, “Crank up that diesel!” Most famously, the band plays the fight song “Hail to the Redskins” after every score.
“The fight song used to say, ‘Fight for old Dixie’ [and] they changed that to ‘Fight for old D.C,’ so change can be made,” Blackistone said. “There is no evidence here locally or nationally when teams have changed those sorts of nicknames where the fan base has turned away. They embrace the name. They embrace their new identity and feel better.”
Ironically, Jerry Jones’ Cowboys would get to keep their name when they were the ones historically doing the slaughtering. The most storied rivalry in sports has dwindled lately with very few playoff runs, but there’s no stopping fans from shouting, “We want Dallas!”
If anything, a name change might open the possibility of the team leaving FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, and rebuilding a stadium on the site of RFK Stadium in Northeast D.C. The proposal has recently been blocked by the D.C. City Council on condition of changing the name, a move that is now also backed by Mayor Muriel Bowser.
“I think all of us would love to see that, but once again, it comes to dollars and cents,” Moseley said. “I think being back where RFK was would be a phenomenal thing.”
There’s also a precedent in other D.C. franchises. In 1997, Abe Pollin changed the basketball team from the Bullets to the Wizards due to citywide gun violence and the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In 2005, the Washington Nationals brought baseball back to the city decades after the Senators departed.
“There is a tradition in Washington of changing sports franchise names,” Kempner said. “The Bullets became the Wizards; the Senators became the Nats. Look what that did for us! This past season was incredible! Isn’t there an expression: third [time] is a charm? … Who knows, [Snyder] might even win a ring, like we did last year in the World Series.”
Which brings us to the all-important question: Which new names have potential?
Snyder has already purchased the rights to the name “Warriors” in 2000, which is similar to the team’s original name of the Boston Braves. That doesn’t go far enough for the filmmakers, who want to remove all Native American references, be it the Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs or Atlanta Braves, who perform the Tomahawk Chop.
“We’re advocating for the erasure of all of those nicknames, all of those mascots,” Blackistone said. “It just happens to be that we’re right here in the nation’s capital. … This is one of the most profitable sports franchises on the planet. … This is the big domino. While we talk about other teams and other nicknames, this is the crown jewel.”
While “Warriors” would double as a tribute to wounded warriors in the nation’s capital, a similar case could be made for “Red Tails.” That was the nickname of the crimson planes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black U.S. military aviators during World War II. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins recently tweeted his support for the idea of “Red Tails.”
“If NASCAR can shed itself of the Confederate flag, if the state of Mississippi … can finally remove the Confederate flag from its state flag, the last state flag to have that imagery, and this team in this city, an international city, the seat of the nation’s capital can continue to have this image? … That’s not a good look,” Blackistone said.
You could also see the team move in the direction of a red, white and blue color scheme for uniformity like Pittsburgh’s black and yellow for the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates. Snyder could match the Nats, Capitals and Wizards with a name like the “Americans.”
“That’s something else that the city could wrap itself around,” Blackistone said. “You could have a poll like Abe Pollin supposedly had to find a new name for the Bullets, you know, get the entire community involved in. It could be something fun.”
Yours Truly suggests “Pigskins.” The name is synonymous with football, as in tossing around the old pigskin. You would honor the late Joe Bugel and The Hogs. Fans could wear snouts like The Hogettes of the ’80s. The fan blog remains Hogs Haven. #HTTR becomes #HTTP like web browsers. Best of all, you can still cheer, “Let’s go Skins!”
“I can see ’em putting the big hog’s snoot on the helmet,” Moseley said jokingly.
Whatever they change it to, Blackistone thinks it’ll be an improvement.
“I really don’t have a thought about what the name can be in the future, I just have a thought about what it shouldn’t be — and it shouldn’t be this,” Blackistone said. “You can take all sorts of names, but just don’t pick a people. Don’t dehumanize a people into mascots, don’t misappropriate their culture, don’t continue to misrepresent them.”
Hindsight is 20/20 in 2020.
“We’re in a new century now, we’re in the 21st century,” Blackistone said. “We’re in 2020, a period of cleansing of a lot of these sins. We should embrace that. … We should basically catch up with the times, we should get on the right side of history, because I tell you what, sooner or later, sooner more than later, you wind up being the lone blemish.”
The filmmakers plan to keep filming this fall and hope to premiere the documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in January. However, plans to capture protests this fall might be preempted by Snyder’s decision this summer, shifting the documentary’s narrative.
“There is no way that Dan Snyder can keep the name,” Kempner said. “Don’t you think there’s going to be massive demonstrations at any local games? … You don’t want the news covering the demonstrations outside more than the touchdowns inside.”
It’s a much easier pitch after hemorrhaging fans over three decades of mediocrity. During Snyder’s tenure, the team is 142–193–1 with just two playoff wins, often mired by front office meddling that ousted coaches Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan.
“It just makes good business sense,” Kempner said. “You’re going to have a whole new set of people buying things. … Just think of the publicity to get the contest for the new name and buy new jerseys. … It would be great marketing to ask for a new name.”
Even if new business somehow outweighs brand loyalty, it’ll still be an adjustment.
“Anybody that’s ever been a Redskin fan, it’s going to be hard for them to swallow … to make their allegiance to another name, but I’m sure they will,” Moseley said. “Things change over time, and in time, things will change, and people will get used to it.”
In the end, no one will take away the memories of George Allen saying, “40 men together can’t lose” or Joe Gibbs winning Super Bowls with Joe Theisman, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien. Fans will never forget John Riggins’ runs, Dexter Manley’s sacks, Frank Herzog’s calls, The Fun Bunch, The Hogs, The Posse, Sean Taylor or Robert Griffin III.
“However it turns out, I’m always going to be proud of the era that I played in, the games that I played, the players that I played with, the coaches that I played under,” Moseley said. “My hope is that all these great players, great coaches and great fans that we’ve had all these years are not forgotten when they change the name if they change it.”