The Washington NFL Team Gets a New Identity. Finally

It took long enough, but it looks like it’s finally happening: the Washington, DC NFL franchise is abandoning its racist name and visual identity. This is a good thing and long overdue. Pressure to ditch the slur/name has been mounting for decades, but the team and Dan Snyder, their notoriously unlikeable owner, have long resisted, even trotting out dubious surveys to claim that “hey look, Native Americans are OK with this!”

Movements to change Native/Indigenous mascots have gained steam in recent years, especially at the scholastic and intercollegiate level, both in the US and Canada. Of course, there are critics, who claim that such imagery honors Indigenous peoples and that changing names and mascots is just another manifestation of over-reaching political correctness. To these critics I say: nope, move along. Native imagery in sports and popular culture has very real consequences for Native/Indigenous youth, the most vulnerable population of our most vulnerable minority group. Here’s the abstract from a paper compiling four research studies, led by Stephane Fryberg, currently at the University of Michigan:

Four studies examined the consequences of American Indian mascots and other prevalent representations of American Indians on aspects of the self-concept for American Indian students. When exposed to Chief Wahoo, Chief Illinwek, Pocahontas, or other common American Indian images, American Indian students generated positive associations (Study 1, high school) but reported depressed state self-esteem (Study 2, high school), and community worth (Study 3, high school), and fewer achievement-related possible selves (Study 4, college). We suggest that American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.

full article here.

We can complement this research with some common sense: social enterprises shouldn’t have racist names, mascots, or imagery. Simple enough. American pro sports organizations aren’t traditional “firms”, with mere fiduciary duties to shareholders. They are the beneficiaries of public monies for stadium construction projects, a variety of special legal dispensations at the state and federal levels, and built their empires via generous deals with a publicly regulated broadcast system. On top of tall that, they are vastly influential, especially to our youth. Maybe they shouldn’t be, but they are.

Some related notes:

  • The Cleveland Indians also seem to be moving toward a name change. The Atlanta Braves say they won’t change their name, but are revisiting the use of Native tropes, such as the Tomahawk Chop. The Chicago Blackhawks say they won’t change their name.
  • The NCAA banned Native mascots 15 years ago, but a handful of special exemptions have been granted. Things get murky here, as some schools essentially buy tribal endorsements, as is the case of the University of Utah (the Utes) and Florida State University (the Seminoles).
  • For a great read on this complex subject, check out: Billings and Black, Mascot Nation: The Controversy over Native American Representations in Sports

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