It’s not just about Washington—racist team mascots persist all over the country

July 4, 2020, 4:10 PM UTC

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Activists and allies have long called for the Washington football team to retire their name, a word that in modern usage is defined as a racial slur. 

It now appears that call may be answered.

On Friday, the team issued a press release distributed via Twitter announcing a “thorough review of the team’s name,” which “formalizes the initial discussions the team has been having with the league in recent weeks.” The statement cited “recent events around our country and feedback from our community.”

“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 Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), in a statement of support. “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.”

Part of the feedback mentioned by the team may have been financial.

On July 1, Adweek reported that Nike, FedEx, and PepsiCo each received letters signed by 87 investment firms and shareholders worth a combined $620 billion asking the companies to sever ties with the Washington team as it is currently named.

Two days later, FedEx, the title sponsor for the team’s home stadium in Landover, Maryland, issued a statement confirmed by NBC News, saying enough was enough. “We have communicated to the team in Washington our request that they change the team name,“ FedEx said.

FedEx paid $205 million in 1998 for the team’s stadium naming rights to in a deal that runs through 2025, according to the NFL. FedEx founder, chairman, and CEO Fred Smith, is a team minority owner.

Nike has made no public statement but seems to have made a commercial one. Washington team’s apparel has disappeared from its e-commerce site, as has any reference of the team itself. “Furthermore, its shopping filters also omit Washington, and its search function pulls up other teams but no results for Washington,” reports NBC Sports. Nike is the team’s official uniform supplier, as well. 

If the team is renamed, it will be powerful victory for advocates and a dramatic turnaround for the team’s majority owner Dan Snyder. In 2013, facing an ongoing federal trademark lawsuit over the disparaging nature of the name, Snyder was adamant. “We’ll never change the name,” he told USA Today in 2013. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”  

The lawsuit, led by five Native Americans, was dropped in 2017 after a 25-year fight.

The wounds associated with the name run deep.

While supporters point to a long-ago history when the term was not yet considered a slur, modern research indicates that all Native American mascots, and the cosplay they inspire, are harmful—and not just to Native Americans.

At the heart of the current argument is a 2013 report commissioned by the Oneida Indian Nation titled “The Harmful Psychological Effects of the Washington Football Mascot.” The research it cites shows that when exposed to Native American mascots, Native American adolescents experience a decline in self-esteem and mood and a noted loss of belief in their community and personal achievement.

“Native Americans are the only group in the United States subjected to having a racial slur as the mascot of a prominent professional sports team,” wrote Michael A. Friedman, the clinical psychologist who compiled the report. The damage is amplified by a multi-billion annual marketing machine that “not only repeatedly exposes Native Americans to a harmful stereotype, but also implicitly condones the use of this term by non-Native Americans, which if performed on an interpersonal level would possibly constitute harassment or bullying.”

The stereotypes affect non-Native people, too. 

“The social science research and literature on this is pretty overwhelming that the use of these caricatures is bad for everyone. Particularly, it’s bad for children,” said Bryan Brayboy in an interview produced by the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University.

Brayboy, a professor of Indigenous education and justice, said Native-themed mascots normalize racism. “For non-native kids, it largely inures them toward racism toward Native people. It ends up giving them the sense that Native folks and peoples are a thing of the past or are to be caricatured, so they are less likely to have empathy with Native peoples, and they come to see us as these relics of the past and stereotypes rather than vibrant, viable, productive human beings.”

These arguments are not new.

In 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) called for all schools and teams to stop using American Indian mascots, symbols, and all related images. “The symbols, images and mascots teach non-Indian children that it’s acceptable to participate in culturally abusive behavior and perpetuate inaccurate misconceptions about American Indian culture,” they wrote.

And while many did, hundreds persist, and heated debates over racist school mascots continue to play out across the country. 

As the Washington team begins their review, it’s worth noting that there is precedent. In 2015, California became the first state in the country to pass a law banning the use of the racial name as a school team name or mascot.  

Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, a student-activist who supported the legislation, dreaded game day against the Calaveras High School football team, whose name was the slur and inspired racist chants from his own team’s supporters. 

Brown saw the law as a new beginning: “I hope everyone can move forward positively and select a new mascot inclusive of all students to represent their campus community.”