What’s in a name? Washington faces re-branding

ANTON RIPPON reports on how a leading American sports franchise name is being forced to enter the 21st century

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has had to wrestle with the Washington nickname issue
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has had to wrestle with the Washington nickname issue

Super Bowl champions the Seattle Seahawks will line up against “Washington” in the coming season, as far as the Seattle Times, the only major print newspaper in the city, is concerned. They will no longer refer to Washington’s NFL franchise as the Redskins.

Actually, they are behind the times. Some 150 miles to the south (for a crow with stamina), in Portland, the Pacific Northwest’s other major daily, the Oregonian, banned the use of the name in the 1990s.

The name of the United States’ capital city’s football franchise that has become one of America’s great political footballs. Other titles such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Kansas City Star have followed the Oregonian‘s lead since.

Now Don Shelton, the Seattle Times sports editor, has announced, “It’s time to ban the use of ‘Redskins’.” He called the nickname “absurd, offensive and outdated”.

This week the Washington franchise lost a key legal battle when district judge Gerald Bruce Lee reaffirmed last year’s decision by the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that the team’s name was offensive to Native Americans and therefore ineligible for federal trademark protection.

The franchise argued that the majority of Native Americans had no objection when trademarks were granted between 1967 and 1990. Judge Lee, though, questioned the choice in the first place, pointing out that, 70 years prior to the first registration of the team’s name, Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary of 1898 defined the word “redskin” as “often contemptuous”.

Last year Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner who grew up a Redskins fan, said: “If one person is offended, then we have to listen.”

The issue runs deep in American sport. George Preston Marshall, who ran the franchise from 1932 until his death in 1969, held out from signing a black player until 1962 when he was issued with an ultimatum ­­­– by, among others, Attorney General Robert Kennedy – that unless he did so, then the United States government would revoke the Redskins’ 30-year lease on the DC Stadium that had just been built and paid for with federal money.

Washington's NFL franchise nickname has been described as "absurd, offensive and outdated"
Washington’s NFL franchise nickname has been described as “absurd, offensive and outdated”

Meanwhile, newspapers banning use of the “R” word  – the cancellation of the trademark registration itself will not officially take place until the team has exhausted all appeals in the federal courts – is an interesting development. Some accuse the titles of double standards because they still openly refer to the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cleveland Indians.

Don Shelton refutes that. “Some argue that if you ban ‘Redskins’, you have to ban all other Native American mascots. I don’t agree.” He argued that other Native American nicknames “don’t generate the same visceral reaction”.

Sensitivities around symbols and avoiding any offence are possibly greater now than at any time in history. Given that, how long before one of Britain’s longest standing ice hockey teams, Streatham, which shares its nomenclature with Washington’s NFL franchise, has to reconsider the way it is branded?

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