One of the most remarkable aspects of the Washington NFL team deciding to change its nickname from an ethnic slur to a nonethnic slur is how quickly the organization seemed to flip on the matter. (Especially considering owner Daniel Snyder’s famous claim that it would NEVER — using all caps here, as he demanded — happen.) The NFL’s season begins — or at least, very hopefully, planning to begin — on September 10, but the team’s announcement makes it clear the name will change before then. That means Washington has to come up with a new name, a new logo, a new marketing scheme and an entire new identity in less time than it takes to play half a season. It feels like another example of 2020 moving too rapidly to even comprehend.
It is very likely that this happened because FedEx and some other team sponsors made clear that they no longer thought it made business sense to be associated with an ethnic slur. But focusing on the proximate reason for the about-face ignores all the context in Snyder’s hands-tied, through-gritted-teeth press release. The movement to change the team’s name has existed for more than 50 years — there was an organized protest of 2,000 people outside the team’s Super Bowl win over Buffalo in 1992 — and, as noted by the Athletic’s Lindsey Adler, Native American activists had begun to notch victories against the team and its name in recent years, including Suzan Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse persuading the U.S. Patent Office to cancel the team’s trademark in 2014. FedEx, the NFL, and the Black Lives Matter movement (including many NFL players and current members of the team) may have carried the ball across the goal line, but activists have been driving it down the field for years now. This victory is theirs, first and foremost.
If any other names are even available, that is.
But the Washington football team isn’t the only professional sports franchise that has come under fire for insensitively appropriating Native American culture; it is merely the one that did so most egregiously. There has been widespread sentiment that none of the other names that fell into this category would change until Washington went first. Well, now that’s out of the way, and those other teams have targets on their backs. Take it away, Carmelo:
In the five days since Carmelo Anthony — whose transition from “moody coach-killing ball hog” to “respected veteran and powerful voice for social justice” has been a delight to witness — tweeted that, one of the six teams called upon to change their names has done so. The other five? Well, it’s complicated. But while it might seem unlikely at this point that they’ll follow suit, it also seemed impossible that Snyder would reverse course as recently as a week ago. And most of those teams have been under pressure for nearly as long as Washington. Let’s take a look at each one:
Cleveland Indians. The Indians seem almost certain to be next in line. In fact, the team itself has already nodded in that direction:
It is likely the Indians would have changed their name even if Snyder hadn’t caved. The team has faced waves of ugly publicity in recent years, most notably during the 2016 World Series, when the racist costumes Cleveland fans streamed into the stadium wearing ended up on national television every night. The team has since banned the rictus grin of Chief Wahoo from its uniforms — though one of its draftees last month signed his contract wearing the logo — and the recent protests seem to have pushed the team over the edge. Some believe Cleveland might not unveil a new name and logo until 2022, but it’s coming. My friend and MLB.com colleague Anthony Castrovince has made a strong case for the Cleveland “Spiders.” If they go with that, I have a mascot suggestion.
Atlanta Braves. When the Braves’ new stadium opened in 2018 (the place is known by some as “White Flight Stadium,” because they abandoned the city for suburban Cobb County), it was remarkable to see the organization’s renewed commitment to Native American iconography. There’s a massive drum in the center-field stands, the team as plastered the hashtag #chopon everywhere, and the premium dining area in right field is known as “the Chophouse.” For a team that once employed nightmarish characters called “Chief Noc-a-Homa” and “Princess Win-A-Lotta,” not using the new digs to drift away from the racist imagery felt like a missed opportunity. Though maybe that was the point of moving in the first place.
But Atlanta’s attitude has changed a bit over the last year, most notably during last year’s National League Championship Series between the Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals have a reliever named Ryan Helsley who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, and before the series, Helsley told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he found the tomahawk chop, the team’s signature cheer, “disrespectful.” The Braves responded by promising not to use the chop when Helsley was pitching and taking away Styrofoam tomahawks they had handed out to fans pregame. The Braves ended up losing that game (Helsley didn’t pitch), and they haven’t played since. There’s a non-zero possibility the chop itself could be gone forever.
The Braves have been more protective of the team’s name, however. Uniform and jersey specialist and reporter Paul Lukas reported that the Braves told a season ticket holder this off-season that they are reassessing the chop, but “we will always be the Atlanta Braves.” For what it’s worth: They, unlike Snyder, did not use all caps.
Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs, who just won the Super Bowl, have always been protected by the Washington football team. When another team goes full slur, you can probably get away with your name as long as they’re still around.
Now that they’re not, though, people are starting to look at the Chiefs. The team’s fans put together a massive tomahawk chop-esque chant at the Super Bowl this year, and offensive fan costumes dotted Miami.
The Chiefs, fittingly, were named after a local white man named Roe Bartle, who started a Boy Scout society called the “Mic-O-Say tribe.” You’d think that’d be embarrassing enough to change things up, but the Chiefs, so far, have been able to skirt the issue. That may be changing: The Kansas City Star’s top columnist, Vahe Gregorian, called for a name change over the weekend, and quoted a local Native American leader who said, “If you get a significant, large number of people who are offended by what you’re doing, how can it be that you’re honoring them if what you’re doing is offensive to them?”
Chicago Blackhawks. The beloved NHL team (and NHL original six member) has said, plainly, and in the last week, that they won’t be changing their name. Why? They claim they’re fine because they’re honoring an actual human being. This defense might land a little stronger if the average fan had any idea which human being they were honoring — according to the team, it’s Black Hawk of Illinois’s Sac and Fox Nation — and it also might land a little stronger if it were actually, you know, true: The team got its name from original owner Frederic McLaughlin, who served in World War II in an infantry division called “Blackhawk Division.”
It is far from certain how the Blackhawks’ explanation will hold up, but the organization, for now, has dug its heels in. The team will only “recognize there is a fine line between respect and disrespect, and we commend other teams for their willingness to engage in that conversation.” So far, the Blackhawks have had no known sponsors call for them to do anything different — though activists are not letting up.
Golden State Warriors. Unlike the other teams on this list, the Warriors don’t use any Native American iconography in their logo or their promotion; many don’t realize there’s anything Native American about their name at all. But the team’s old logo, which it got rid of in 1970, makes the connection clear. And the one before that, back in the Philadelphia Warriors days, was perhaps worse than any team’s on this list.
Until Carmelo’s tweet, there hadn’t been many calls for Golden State to switch things up. (If anything, people wanted the team to become the San Francisco Warriors when they moved from Oakland into the city this year.) Heck, five years ago Jimmy Kimmel did a whole bit in which fake activists called for changing Golden State’s name because Warriors was “too violent.” But there is no league more sensitive to the pulse of 2020 than the NBA. And there’s a reason “Warriors” has been mostly taken off the table as a new name for the Washington football team. Golden State making a move would also have precedent: Marquette University’s team was once called “the Warriors,” as well, but changed their name in 1994 to the “Golden Eagles,” specifically because Native American groups and activists had objected.
Washington changing its name is a massive shift in the world of sports, and one that is long overdue. But it still feels like just the start. And trust me, as someone who has had to apologize for his alma mater’s nickname and mascot for 20 years, there is immense value in a dull, boring, nondescript name for your team. Mascots are for children to take pictures with at games, and for people to punch because they forget there is actually a human being inside that costume. Sometimes progress is grand. And sometimes it’s just a dumb furry cartoon tiger … or Gritty. Progress is nevertheless progress. And it is well on its way.