The Washington Redskins have struggled on the field in recent years, not winning a playoff game since the 2005 season. And during that span, debate off-the-field has raged on whether the team’s nickname is acceptable in today’s social climate.
Nicknames and mascots that depict violence or other stereotypes regarding Native Americans have disappeared in the high school, college, and pro ranks over the past couple of decades, with the most recent being the retirement of the Cleveland Indians’ “Chief Wahoo” logo (Chief Wahoo Logo: Rise and Fall).
In 2013, team owner Daniel Snyder found himself defending the nickname when asked if it was offensive.
“A Redskin is a football player,” Snyder told ESPN. “A Redskin is our fans, the Washington Redskin fan base. It represents the honor, represents respect, represents pride, hopefully winning.”
Snyder says that Native Americans helped design the team’s logo, and while he respects people’s opinion if they find it offensive, he says that their intended use of the name and logo should also be respected for what he says it represents.
While that seems like it should put an end to the debate, it hasn’t stopped in recent years.
A group of Native Americans opposed to the logo tried to file a trademark for the term and define it as an offensive and disparaging racial slur, in hopes that it would then for the team to change its name on legal grounds.
Legal rulings, challenges, and appeals led to the issue being taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2017, the Court ruled that trademarks are private and not government speech, so the ruling would be unconstitutional by violating the First Amendment’s free speech clause.
The Washington Post conducted a famous poll in 2016 that revealed that 90 percent of Native Americans are not bothered by the Redskins nickname. Nine percent found it offensive, while one percent had no opinion. A poll conducted in 2004 showed similar results, despite the debate returning to the public forefront before the most recent poll was taken.
Snyder took this as validation of his position.
“The Washington Redskins team, our fans, and community have always believed our name represents honor, respect, and pride,” Snyder said in a press release. “[This poll] shows Native Americans agree. We are gratified by this overwhelming support from the Native American community, and the team will proudly carry the Redskins name.”
Despite the support, there have been many efforts to downplay the name outside NFL circles. Many news-gathering organizations will not refer to the team by their nickname, while U.S. Senators and former President Barack Obama also showed support for protestors.
Interestingly, more non-Native Americans find the name offensive. A 2014 ESPN poll found that 23 percent of people surveyed called for the Redskins name to be retired due to it being offensive. That number was 28 percent within the District of Columbia. In fact, Snyder believes that his team, which currently plays at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, would have a hard time trying to drum up public support to build a new stadium in D.C. were he to keep the nickname. There have been talks of the team trying to return to the site of the team’s former stadium in town – RFK Stadium – when their lease at FedEx Field ends in 2027.
Despite all the controversy, Snyder stands steadfast in his belief that he is a steward of the franchise, and the name will carry on to the next owner of the team.
“We will never change the name,” Snyder told USA Today in 2013. “It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.”
And taking into account all of the court battles, protestors, and supporters, at the end of the day, it’s a private matter, and Snyder’s opinion is the only one that truly matters because – at the moment – he’s the only one with the power to do something about it.
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