The team with possibly the most problematic name in sports today is considering a brand makeover. The Washington Redskins have long been under pressure from Native American rights groups to remove the racial slur from their team name. However, recently major sponsors of the National Football League team have joined the calls for a rebrand, and this time it looks like the team and its owners are finally listening.
The current pressure was instigated by a group of 80 investment firms with $620 billion in assets under management, and are using this economic clout to actively promote social justice issues. The group turned to major sponsors of the Redskins, including FedEx, Nike Inc and PepsiCo Inc, encouraging these brands to end their relationships with the team unless it changed its name.
However, the renewed pressure for the Washington Redskins to rebrand started in early June, when the team participated in "Blackout Tuesday" on Twitter, posting a black square In support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was swift to point out the team’s hypocrisy:
Shortly after this, a statue of George Preston Marshall, the team's founder, was spray painted with the words "Change the Name" before being removed from the grounds of RFK Stadium. Marshall resisted efforts towards integration in American football and was the last NFL owner to sign an African American player to his roster.
Last Friday, the Washington Redskins announced that they will undergo a thorough review of the team’s name.
What’s in a name?
The team was originally founded in 1932 as the Boston Braves, named after their playing grounds at the time (Braves Field). The change to the Redskins happened in 1933, and the team moved to Washington, DC, in 1937, and have been known as the Washington Redskins ever since then.
Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and part of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, explains that Native American imagery was adopted by sports teams at exactly the same time that the so-called civilization regulations suppressed Native American culture by restricting them from speaking their languages or practicing their religions. Gover argues “there were a lot of very powerful forces at work to deny Native American people of agency over their own identities and their very lives. And that’s when the mascots emerged.”
Some have defended the name by citing coach William Henry Dietz, who apparently claimed Native American heritage and was hired by the team in the 1930s. However, the NCAI (National Congress of American Indians) has explained why using Native American imagery as sports mascots is damaging: “Rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes are harmful, perpetuate negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples, and contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples.”
Heritage as branding
The Washington Redskins’ name and logo are firmly based on damaging stereotypes of native peoples that date back to the European colonialist’s first contact with these tribes. Images and writing from that time are based on a dichotomy between the noble savage (brave, strong, with a mystical bond to the native land) and ignoble savage (amoral, uncivilized and inherently violent). Gover explains that “the Indian-in-profile is always a dead giveaway of the noble savage, and the word ‘redskin’ is inherently ignoble. So the Washington team manages to mix these myths together.”
However, NFL teams are not the only offenders in appropriating Native American imagery. “Cigar store Indians” were used as early as the 17th century to advertise tobacconists to a largely illiterate public, with life-sized wooden carvings of Native American chieftains placed at the entrance to the establishments.
The butter company Land O’Lakes decided to drop the image of an indigenous woman from its logo in April of this year, just ahead of the company’s 100th anniversary. The woman, known as Mia, first appeared on the butter’s labels in 1928, and was reimagined in the 1950s by Native American artist Patrick DesJarlait who hoped to use the logo to inspire “a sense of Indian pride”.
Native American imagery still appears on the logos of insurance company Mutual of Omaha and the cigarette brand Natural American Spirit, among others.
Change is not new
The name change for the Washington Redskins is long overdue, not least because many leading American sports teams have already swapped their team names and logos to alternatives that are not so offensive to indigenous communities. Here is a nice breakdown of some of those changes:
With brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben's currently bringing their outdated slogans and logos into 2020, the time has come for the Washington Redskins to do the same and join the racial reckoning the market is going through right now.
What’s going on here?
It looks like there are three useful lessons that we can learn from this current decision to finally rebrand the team.
- Corporate pressure is stronger than consumer pressure
The efforts by Native American groups to encourage the Washington Redskins to change their name have included national protests in 1988 and 1992 (following the team's Super Bowl victories) and lawsuits in 1999 and 2009. However, it looks like this time, the pressure from brands that sponsor the team will be a decisive factor in forcing change.
We’ve seen a similar pattern with the recent Facebook boycott: the 2018 #DeleteFacebook campaign was far less impactful than the current movement to boycott the platform, led by advertisers who are able to vote with their dollars and freeze their ad spends on the platform.
These brands have managed to have an impact where government, NGOs and advocacy groups have previously been sidelined and ignored.
- Brands influence other brands
Like the domino effect of the Facebook boycott, we see the brand associations having a big impact here. We looked last month at how Nike have made “wokeness” a central feature of their brand identity. Here we see the knock-on effect that position has on the other companies that Nike associates themselves with; while working with a team with a racist name and logo damages Nike’s own credibility in this space, taking a stand on this issue makes Nike out as one of the “good guys” and encourages other companies to follow suit.
- Brands can change
Daniel Snyder, the owner of Washington’s NFL club, stated in 2013 that the Redskins would never change their name, emphasizing "It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps." This development shows that actually it was just a matter of time before the team had to adapt to changing consumer attitudes and sensitivities.
This scope for change from even the largest of brands can also be seen in the relationship between L'oreal Paris and transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf. Three years after firing Bergdorf for posting on social media about "the racial violence of white people", the brand has issued a formal apology and hired Bergdorf as part of their diversity and inclusion advisory board. In a very different approach from the one they took three years ago, the brand announced, "We support Munroe's fight against systemic racism and as a company we are committed to work to dismantle such systems."
It shouldn’t have taken this long for the owners and stakeholders of the Washington Redskins to realize their name was racist (especially since Native Americans had been telling them this for decades). However, the corporate world is not immune from the cultural reckoning that is going on right now, shining a new spotlight on discrimination and injustice, and showing brands that this kind of racial insensitivity is no longer acceptable to consumers.