by Dr. Tommy Whittler
In the first article I wrote about names and labels, I mentioned that a Lexington, Kentucky thoroughbred owner wanted to name his precocious filly, Sally Hemings, after Thomas Jefferson’s lover and slave. Fortunately, this horse owner’s petition was denied. But this attempt to name a horse after a slave is similar to the early naming of sports teams after Native American Indians. Who gave sports teams names such as the Braves, Indians, Blackhawks, Redmen, Orangemen, Fighting Illini, Fighting Sioux? For what purpose were these names initially given? But today, in this age of political correctness, why do sports teams continue to keep team names after groups of native United States citizens?
Universities appear sensitive to this issue and special kudos to Stanford Cardinal (formerly Indian), Syracuse Orange (formerly Orangemen), St. Johns Red Storm (formerly Redmen), Marquette Eagles (formerly Warriors). Some other institutions have kept their names, but have felt pressure from the NCAA to change them (e.g., Fighting Illini, Florida State Seminals, Bradley Braves, North Dakota Fighting Sioux).
Professional teams, however, have balked at this change (e.g., the Chicago Blackhawks, the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, and Washington Redskins). Recently, the Cleveland team changed their logo from the “smiling, drunken Indian” to a character that is less offensive. But the Braves continue the “Tomahawk chop” for rally motivators, despite the chant being part of Native Americans’ religious ceremonies. Imagine a church hymn being used to stir sports fans into a frenzy! The Redskins refuse to change their name. Owner Dan Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Godell remain steadfast in keeping the name as they contend it is an honor to Native Americans and that the name has become a profitable brand. Say what? To Native Americans, the name “redskin” is akin to calling a Black person a “nigga.” An insensitivity and arrogance is observed as the team retains this derogatory name.
But the history of the Washington Redskins is quite telling. In 1932, George Preston Marshall headed a group that founded a professional football team they called the Boston Braves. A year later, Marshall changed the name to the “Redskins,” supposedly in honor of the team’s coach, Lone Star Dietz, who claimed he was part Sioux. In 1937, the team was moved to Washington, D.C., Marshall’s home town. This NFL team team was the last to have a Black player given Marshall’s racist views. He was quoted once as saying, “We’ll have a Negro player when the Globetrotters have a White player.” Current owner Snyder should know that Marshall was not too keen on Jews, either.
Maybe we can help them see the callousness of their charge. Let’s say we had team nicknames like the New Jersey Jews, the New York Niggabockers, the Boston Beeatchis, the Pittsburgh Pollacks. And while we are at it, let’s create a family restaurant called Peckers since we already have Hooters. Would this owner and commissioner continue to claim that these latter names honor men and women or that after several decades these names had become branded and thus profitable?
Recent activities in professional sports indicate that there would be no major problems changing these names and their logos. In basketball, the New Orleans Jazz were relocated to Utah (Can someone explain to me the relationship between Utah and jazz music?), but were re-created to become first the New Orleans Hornets, but now the New Orleans Pelicans. The Charlotte Hornets were renamed the Charlotte Bobcats, but will go back to the Hornets. In football, the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis, but got a new franchise as the Baltimore Ravens. The St. Louis Cardinals moved to Arizona, but are now the St. Louis Rams, who used to be in Los Angeles. The Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore, but Cleveland got a new franchise still named the Cleveland Browns.
Natives of America do not see pride in sports teams taking on their names just as they saw no pride in a malt liquor containing 25% alcohol branded “Chief Crazy Horse Malt Liquor.” As a religious and political leader, Chief Crazy Horse warned his people about the dangers of alcohol consumption. A proud group kept the chief’s beliefs, stood up to this marketing abuse, and ultimately got the brand taken off the market.
Like universities and high school teams, the NFL and the Washington football team should change the name. I believe that fans would be receptive to the change and a new brand would be created. Snyder and Goodell would be practicing what is known in marketing as “good faith advertising.”
Dr. Tommy E. Whittler is a professor of marketing, a nationally recognized scholar, and a champion of equity in sports and life. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.