Sports teams drop names, mascots in response to intensifying BLM Movement

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The grinning red face of the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo, the iconic profile of the Washington Redskins’ Chief Zee, Chicago’s Chief Black Hawk, and the Atlanta Braves’ Chief Noc-A-Homa have all been labeled as symbols of racism and prejudice. Iconic sports team names and mascots, once readily accepted without any qualms, are now being eyed with wary suspicion in the new limelight cast by the gaining momentum of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Among the five professional sports teams, the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, and Chicago Blackhawks, under pressure to rebrand their franchises, two teams, the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, are under particularly crushing coercion to change their names.  Both teams are currently reviewing their names with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder determining on July 13 that they will go by the name of the Washington Football Team for the 2020 NFL season. While the other three controversial teams have refused to consider changing their names, the growing momentum of the BLM movement and the tense racial climate are surely shifting fundamental perceptions of race-based sports team names previously thought to be norms.

“To be honest, the name changes struck me as odd,” said Samuel Hong (10), devout follower of the NFL. “I always knew the Washington football team as the Redskins and to change their name now seems too abrupt and sudden for me. Public conceptions of racism are definitely changing and I can see more teams changing their names in the future.”

Although the BLM movement originally started as a black rights movement, the shocking murder of George Floyd and the ensuing escalation of racial awareness has expanded the BLM’s scope to encompass all ethnic minorities subject to racism. Among these victimized minorities are the Native Americans. According to the New York Times, Native Americans have been used as mascots and formed the foundation for the names of over 2,200 sports teams around North America. Recently, those of professional sports leagues are starting to be tied with strongly negative, racist connotations. Out of all controversial sports teams, the Washington Redskins especially have been under constant criticism with its name, the “Redskins,” being characterized as racist slur or the “R-word” for Native Americans, an equivalent of the “N-word” for African Americans. The decades-long controversy surrounding the franchise name traces back to the origins of the name “Redskins.” Although “Redskins” has been a commonly used, widely accepted slang term used to refer to Native Americans, the term has also been associated with the dead bodies of Native American throughout the Dakota War of 1862, during which the Minnesota government awarded money for killing American Indians. After decades of criticism, owner Snyder, despite having vowed “never” to change the franchise name, has finally succumbed to the financial pressure of sponsors and activists urging a name change. Other teams, notably the Cleveland Indians, have also been pressured for decades to change their names and mascots. The Indians were forced to drop their cartoonish Native American mascot, Chief Wahoo, last year under claims that it was an outdated and racist depiction of American Indians. Now, with the gaining impetus of the BLM movement, even its name, the Indians, is being put into question and is currently under review. The Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Blackhawks, although considered milder cases of racism, may soon follow suit considering the rapidly expanding BLM movement.

“As a Redskins fan I never thought the name was offensive,” said Jihoon Kim (10), avid fan of the Washington Redskins. “But I do see how it might have targeted certain minorities. Regardless of my personal opinion, if the Redskins do not have the Native Americans’ consent, they need to change the name.” 

Despite many sports teams starting to rebrand controversial names, another controversy is arising in the wake of the name changes. Many ardent fans of the controversial teams are questioning whether the names are offensive at all, arguing that name changes are not necessary and potentially detrimental to their team. Amidst the heated debate, many Redskins fans are asserting that the name “Redskins” was a nod to the Native Americans’ bravery rather than an offensive slur aimed at deriding the minority. Others claim that the “Redskins” name and the team mascot were originally adopted to celebrate Native American culture and heritage. Most strikingly, advocates of preserving the “Redskins” name point out how 9 out of 10 Americans, according to a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, are not bothered by the name. In the eyes of Redskins fans, the name change is, in sum, an extremely narrow-minded decision favoring the offended few of the Native American minority at the cost of decades of history, Super Bowls, pride, and glory attributed with the “Redskins” franchise. Similar complaints have been echoed by Indians fans. Indians fans argue that stripping the team of its 105-year old name would be a heavy blow to the franchise’s deep history and pride. Indians fans also point out how progressive the Indians have been in the past. Ever since it was founded in 1915, the Cleveland Indians have been among the most multicultural organizations in baseball, being the first MLB team to sign a Native American player, the first team to welcome a black player, and the first MLB team to have a black manager. Drawing on this notably progressive history of the Cleveland Indians, the Indians fans maintain that changing the team name would be unnecessary as the franchise has already overridden associated racist caricatures and proven its multicultural openness. Others contend that a name change is a step too far as the Cleveland Indians had already dropped their controversial Chief Wahoo mascot in 2018. Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding the issue is certainly tipping in favor of Native American activists and signaling the birth of a new standard in racism that extends into sports team names.

“There are no benefits in keeping the names,” said Timothy Munro, physical education teacher. “I also do not see any reason why a name change would be detrimental for the sports teams. A name change does not affect the team itself in any way. The Montreal Expos, for example, were relocated to Washington and renamed the Washington Nationals. That didn’t stop them from winning the 2019 World Series. A name change is a necessary step for combatting racism and a fear of tainting franchise pride with a name change is out of the equation.”