Seven years ago, the owner of Washington’s NFL team Dan Snyder was adamant that the Redskins name would never be retired. “We will never change the name of the team. As a lifelong Redskins fan, I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season,” Snyder said. “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”
For fans of the Redskins, the emphatic nature of this statement was nothing new. Amidst constant calls to change its name, which is considered an offensive slur by many in and out of the indigenous community, the Redskins organization had persisted with the use of its racist moniker since 1933. Yet on July 3, the team finally pivoted. “In light of recent events around our country and feedback from our community, the Washington Redskins are announcing the team will undergo a thorough review of the team’s name,” the team said in a publicly released statement.
Ten days later, the team announced that it would ultimately be abandoning its long decried nickname. With the decision, the long and complicated 87-year history of the “Redskins” name comes to an end.
The “Redskins” team name first originated in 1933 when the franchise, initially based in Boston, changed its name from the Braves to Redskins to avoid confusion with baseball’s Boston Braves. The team’s then-owner George Preston Marshall claimed that the nickname was chosen to honor the team’s Native American head coach, Lone Star Dietz, as well as the several Native American players on the team. Even at the time, however, the term had a largely negative connotation and was used almost exclusively as a slur towards Native Americans.
Nonetheless, the moniker remained unchallenged even as the team moved to Washington in 1937 and became the last NFL team to integrate in 1962. By that period, team nicknames inspired by Native American stereotypes and culture were prevalent, with “Redskins” being accompanied by team names such as the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, and Kansas City Chiefs.
However, starting in the 1960s, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, controversy over the Washington NFL team’s name eventually emerged into the public consciousness. In 1968, the National Congress of American Indians launched a campaign to eliminate stereotypes of Native people in popular culture and media. Soon after, a group of Native American activists requested that Washington NFL’s team change its name. However, the team owner at the time maintained that the nickname was to show respect to Native people, not disparage them. 20 years later, an estimated 3,000 activists protested against the name outside the 1992 Super Bowl game between the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills. Still, the name remained in use.
Since then, efforts to remove the name occasionally stepped back into the limelight, but the Redskins organization continuously shot down cries to remove the moniker, and, in 2013, when Snyder vowed that the name would never change, it seemed that attempts to persuade Washington to alter their nickname would prove to ultimately be futile. Then, four Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, and the U.S. experienced possibly its biggest reckoning over race since the Civil Rights Movement.
While the Redskins organization had previously shown itself to be indifferent to conversations over social justice, its affiliated businesses did not have the same attitude. Likely prompted by the current fervor over race in the country, FedEx, the franchise’s main sponsor, threatened to withdraw their sponsorship if Snyder did not change the team’s name. Similarly, Nike removed all Redskins apparel from its online store as a show of support for the movement to change the team’s name. A day later, on July 3, the Redskins organization announced that it would be reviewing its name.
Later, on July 8, major retailers followed in Nike’s footsteps and pulled Redskins gear from their stores; two days after, Washington’s NFL team announced that it would be officially changing its name. After decades of resistance from Washington’s NFL team to changing its name, it may have been the power of money that finally pushed Snyder and his organization over the edge.
Through Teen Lenses: Do you feel that it was necessary for Washington’s NFL team to change their name or that they should’ve kept the “Redskins” moniker?
“Changing the Redskins’ name was definitely necessary. I feel like the change should have come a long time ago; a name like the redskins is really derogatory to Native American people. The thing that really bothers me is that even though people have been pushing for a name change for years, the team didn’t take initiative to change it until their sponsor asked them to change it or lose their sponsorship. Were they doing it because it’s the right thing to do, or because of the sponsorship? How much longer could the team just have turned a blind eye to all this?” Aafreen Ali, 15, Rising Junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax, VA
“Given that many people find the team name offensive I support the name change, but I will miss singing “Hail to the Redskins.” Any other fight song certainly won’t have the same ring to it.” Elliott Lee, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, McLean, VA
“I strongly support the changing of the name of the Washington D.C. football team. This controversial name is not helping the cause of the events going on these past couple of months.” Dhruv Chandna, 13, Rising 8th Grader at Robert Frost Middle School, Fairfax, VA