In the 1960s, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan penned inspiring poetic lines, “There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’/ It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls,” that still ring true today. Dylan’s concluding musical refrain, “For the times, they are a-changin’,” should be a warning to Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington, DC football team with the controversial name, that his past declaration to never change the franchise’s name isn’t acceptable anymore as his sponsors are pulling out. Finally today, Snyder said the name would be changed after 87 years of insulting Native Americans with a racist slur.
Snyder had to bow to corporate pressure. Recently, 87 shareholders and investment firms approached important corporate sponsors such as FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo to stop doing business with the Washington football team until it discontinues using its offensive name. Federal Express responded by asking the team to change its name. DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, victorious from the House’s recent passage of legislation enacting statehood for the nation’s capital, affirmed that Snyder’s desire to build a new stadium here is not happening without a name change.
This corporate pressure to change the name is a new phenomenon. In past years, Native American activists, who consider the team’s name a blatant racial slur, acted on their own and filed trademark cases challenging the insulting moniker. They also staged protests in cities where the Washington, DC team played. Snyder answered their criticisms with a questionable poll among Native Americans that showed support for the hateful name. Recent research out of The University of Michigan has shown a markedly different conclusion.
As racism is being exposed to its core in the streets of America, the wrath against the team’s distasteful name took a sharp upward turn. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and directors Ava Duvernay and Spike Lee sent condemnatory tweets urging a name change. On a national level, sportswriters and newspapers continue to express disdain for the franchise’s name.
Now there is a game-changing moment as the Native American community has spirited and vocal allies among them the Black Lives Matter movement and sympathetic youthful protesters. If the Washington football team had not unburdened itself from its racist name and symbols, these activists would certainly have mounted robust demonstrations the likes of which no American football team has ever seen. The camera’s attention would no longer be directed at touchdowns inside the stadiums without seated audiences, but rather at the showdowns between the protesters and security and police protecting the stadium. No owner would relish such displays.
There also would have been demonstrations within the stadium, since Commissioner Roger Goodell recently gave permission for players to protest racism—ironically, without even mentioning Colin Kaepernick’s name. Snyder should worry that his own players might be moved to turn their jerseys inside out and tape over the team’s mascot on their helmets in protest of his stubborn continual use of the name.
Surely his fellow NFL owners are watching Snyder and the negative publicity emanating from his stubbornness. Remember how swiftly similar strategies aided in forcing Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling out of the NBA in 2014. Add corporate sponsors taking a stand and Snyder might be out of the NFL as fast as you can stop saying Aunt Jemima.
It’s a no-brainer that now Snyder finally changed the team’s name his ownership will profit from marketing new team hats and shirts. In addition, he will finally gain respect for doing the right thing and following the path of two other team owners who were accepting of name changes.
And he is following in the footsteps of two Jewish owners in Washington, DC. In 1995, enlightened basketball owner Abe Pollin was worried that Washington, DC was labeled the “murder capital” because of gun violence. So Pollin, who was also sickened by Israeli prime minister’s Yitchak Rabin’s assassination, switched the basketball team’s name from the Bullets to the Wizards. And when baseball happily returned to our city, owner Ted Lerner accepted the DC City Council’s resolution that without voting representation in Congress a Washington baseball team could not be called the Senators. So it’s become a local tradition to rename sports franchise names here if the social climate calls for it.
Without question, the other benefit of choosing a new name is that Snyder, who is looking to build a new stadium, can construct one right in the nation’s capital without city council opposition. This new identity would bring increased respectability for the team and for him as an owner. And instead of fighting political demons, Snyder could instead strive for a Super Bowl title for the newly-minted Washington football team, just as the beloved Washington, DC Nationals captured the World Series last year.
So it’s great you were finally mensch, Mr. Snyder, and getting on the right side of history this season.
Filmmaker Aviva Kempner is co-directing Imaging the Indians, a documentary on the fight against Native American mascoting, with Ben West (Cheyenne), and producers Sam Bardley and Kevin Blackistone. She also made films about baseball greats Hank Greenberg and Moe Berg.