“Washington Redskins”: Time for a Name Change
By Deborah M. Figart
The sport of football has a lot of things on its plate. Retired players with dementia. College players that want to unionize. And then there is the Washington Redskins, a team whose owner Daniel Snyder refuses to change its name.
In its Blackhorse v. Pro Football, Inc. decision on June 18, 2014, pending any appeal, the United States Patent and Trademark Office cancelled the team’s trademarks on the basis that it is “disparaging to Native Americans.” Royalties from the Redskins name and their maroon-and-gold brand will plummet. Sales of copycat shirts and merchandise will not be prosecuted, and sales revenue will not go to the NFL and therefore be shared across all teams, including the Redskins.
Words matter. They have meaning. They conjure up images. Culture evolves. What was once acceptable in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity may no longer be legal and/or tolerated. “Washington Redskins” is a name that is passé—oh-so-twentieth-century, and even eighteenth century. The original pro team was not even named that. They were the Boston Braves in 1932. One year later, the new owner changed the name to the Redskins, and the team moved to Washington in 1937.
Changing a team’s name when it relocates is not unusual. The Tennessee Titans were originally the Houston Oilers. In fact, the original football Titans were the New York Titans, renamed the New York Jets in 1963. Imagine: Joe Namath might have won Super Bowl III, one of the greatest upsets in football history, as quarterback of a team called the Titans!
The Charlotte Hornets NBA team initially took their name with them when they moved to New Orleans. When the New Orleans team became the Pelicans, the Hornets name was available. Charlotte Bobcats team owner Michael Jordan changed his relatively new team’s name back to the Charlotte Hornets.
Professional teams have rebranded themselves for other reasons as well. Names that have evoked guns, violence, and sin were dropped in favor of more positive terms. Baseball’s Houston Astros were once the Colt .45s. And the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and now just the Rays. Basketball’s Washington Wizards were once the Capitol Bullets.
The Redskins have an opportunity to reboot and rebrand. It should be seized and not feared. Doing nothing is not costless, especially with the trademark decision. A name change would instead be profitable for the team and the NFL.
Of course there are legal costs to rebranding any team, such as securing trademarks, ordering new uniforms and equipment, new signage, etc. According to a recent Washington Post article, these costs would amount to less than $5 million for the Redskins. But a reboot could result in millions and millions of dollars of new merchandise sold. The fan base may expand wider than Washington, DC, to fans who would proudly wear a logo whose name was no so offensive. Sports branding experts, like Anthony Fernandez quoted in the Washington Times, agree that new markets and new business would result from a name change.
When the NBA’s first openly gay player, Jason Collins, signed this past season with the Brooklyn Nets, I bought a Jason Collins tee shirt. I was not the only one. Millions were sold on the NBA’s website, making it the #1 or #2 selling jersey for several months during the season.
My Jason Collins shirt is black, the color of the newly branded Brooklyn Nets, who changed uniforms when they moved from New Jersey to New York. Black is cool. Sports teams have been adding black to appeal to their fans. So what new color mix might a newly rebranded Washington team wear in the NFC East, a division with the Giants, the Eagles, and the Cowboys? How about black and orange—which would really be black. After all, “Orange is the New Black.”
Dr. Deborah M. Figart is a professor of Education and Economics in the School of Education and a Contributing Policy Analyst for the Hughes Center.