Analysis

Protest works: Racist team name bites the dust in Washington, DC

Photo: Fibonacci Blue (CC BY 2.0) Minneapolis, Minnesota November 2, 2014. Several thousand protesters marched through Minneapolis to TCF Stadium where the Vikings were playing the Washington DC football team. 

The last two months of militant protests across the country have put to rest the tired old line that “protesting doesn’t accomplish anything.” Statues of genocidal racists have come toppling down; countless viral videos of rampaging cops have changed public understanding of systemic police violence and rendered the “bad apple” defense absurd; corporations and politicians have rushed out to proclaim their anti-racism. 

In one striking sign of change, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged: “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” Goodell avoided naming Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who focused attention on police violence by taking a knee at football games starting in 2016. Still, it’s impossible to imagine Goodell’s statement without the pressure brought by weeks of protests.

His new tone is not the only change happening in professional sports. On July 3, the Washington, D.C. professional football team announced that “in light of recent events around our country” it would discard its racist name and logo. Many people recall team owner Dan Snyder’s response to USA Today when asked in 2013 if the team would change: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” This perfect illustration of ruling class arrogance has now crumbled before the power of mass protest.

The change may appear to be sudden, but it comes after decades of struggle. Sports team were an obvious, highly visible point of focus in 1968 when The National Congress of American Indians began a campaign to remove widespread negative stereotypes of their culture. Eleven activists pressed the Washington team to change its name in 1972. Then, and in the decades that followed, team spokespersons insisted that the name was meant to honor Native Americans. It’s a ridiculous and offensive statement, given that the word has long been known as a racist slur.

In the years that followed, the struggle gained support. A crowd of about 3,000 people protested outside the 1992 Super Bowl between Washington and Buffalo. In that year a group of Native Americans, including Suzan Shown Harjo, filed a lawsuit to strip the club of its trademark registration. Although the Federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled in their favor in 1999, the team appealed and the decision was ultimately overturned. 

As recently as 2018, Commissioner Goodell expressed support for Snyder’s decision to keep the racist name, echoing the team’s discredited justification. 

The decision to change the name came swiftly after the start of protests following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others. As might be expected, money played a role. Several major corporations with business ties to the team, bowing to pressure, asked Snyder to change the name. These included Nike, Pepsi, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and FedEx, which has naming rights to the stadium in which the team plays. Against that monetary pressure, Snyder’s all caps “NEVER” didn’t stand a chance. 

Snyder has indicated that the team name and logo will change, but as of publishing time the new name has not yet been announced. One name many are suggesting, Red Wolves, fits the rhythm of the team’s theme song and was actually selected by a Michigan high school which had previously shared the same name as Washington’s team. The Paw Paw school board approved the change in a 6 – 1 decision this June. 

 An offensive name and logo are not the only signs of deep racism in Washington’s football team, which was first owned by notorious segregationist George Preston Marshall. In a sign of changing times, the team announced in June that it would be removing Marshall’s name from all official team material. Marshall founded the team in 1933 and owned it until his death in 1969. The team, the last to hire a Black player, finally was forced to do so in 1962 when Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall threatened that it would lose its lease on D.C. Stadium – now named RFK Stadium — if it did not integrate. 

Marshall relented, selecting Ernie Davis, the number 1 overall pick in the 1962 player draft. Davis, well aware that he would be working for a blatantly racist boss, refused to play for the team, saying: “I won’t play for that S.O.B.”  Facing eviction from the team’s home stadium, Marshall then traded Davis to Cleveland in return for Bobby Mitchell, who went on to a legendary career that led him to the Professional Football Hall of Fame. 

In a sign of changing times, Marshall’s name will no longer be mentioned on the team’s official website, on their History Wall, or Ring of Fame. In addition, the lower bowl of FedEx field, which had been named to honor Marshall, will now be named in honor of Bobby Mitchell. 

On June 19 of this year – Juneteenth – the city of Washington took down Marshall’s statue from the front plaza of RFK Stadium. When asked if she objected to the removal, Marshall’s granddaughter Jordan Wright told The Washington Post: “No, not at all — not one damn bit. I was glad to see it come down. It’s past time to see it go.”

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