The R Word - The Washington Redskins Controversy

Updated October 7, 2021 | Jennie Wood and Katherine Schauer

The debate over one NFL team's name is over

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The Washington Redskins name controversy is finally resolved. In 2020, the team was rebranded the Washington Football Team, pending a future name change.

History of the Controversy

On July 8, 2015, U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee ordered the cancellation of the team's federal trademark registrations, affirming the United States Patent and Trademark Office's decision made a year earlier. On June 18, 2014, in a 2-1 decision, the Patent and Trademark Office ruled that some of the trademark protections of the Washington Redskins were invalid and stated that the use of the team name "Redskins" constituted an ethnic slur. A month before the ruling, Senator Harry Reid and 49 other Democratic senators asked Goodell to push the Redskins to change their name. Attorney General Eric Holder and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on the team's owner, Daniel Snyder, to make the change.

In Dec. 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington said the federal law blocking disparaging trademarks is a violation of the first amendment. The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court's decision and in Sept. 2016, the Court announced that they will be looking into a similar case that is further along in the legal process and will directly affect the Redskins trademark. The Court will be looking at the 1946 Lanham Trademark Act, a federal law which prohibits the registration of derogatory or harmful trademarks. They will decide if the Act is a violation of free speech and whether or not it should be changed. The decision will not mean that the Redskins have to change their names, but it will decide whether or not the team name receives patent protection.

Public Opinion

While activist groups continue to call for Snyder to change the name of the Redskins NFL team, a poll taken by the Washington Post during the first 5 months of 2016 says that 9 out of 10 Native Americans do not find the name offensive despite the ongoing controversy. The poll surveyed 504 Native Americans nationwide. The results were the same as a poll conducted in 2004 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which also found that Native Americans were not overly concerned. The Washington Post poll also found that 7 out of 10 Native Americans did not think the name “Redskins“ was offensive, and 8 out of 10 said they would not be offended if non-Native American used the term.

The results of the poll have started being used by Snyder and other Redskin officials to combat the “name-change“ activists. However, important Native American leaders throughout the country have denounced the polls results, calling it inaccurate. This included Native American Suzan Harjo, who was a plaintiff in the first case against the team. Others in the “name-change“ activist group issued a statement saying they are proud of the Native Americans' resilience but that it is still not okay for the Redskins to profit off of a racial slur.

The “name-changers“ have won the support of many prominent people in the media, including President Obama, Democratic senators, several editorial boards, and many sports broadcasters. Snyder stood his ground, however, announcing that he will never change the name. This unyielding position received criticism from political groups, religious groups, and even mainstream shows like South Park.

Harmful Stereotypes

The National Congress of American Indians released a harmful mascots report in Oct. 2013, urging teams not to use Redskins or any other Native American mascots. In the report, the team was referred to as “Redsk*ns“ or the “R Word“ due to the deeply offensive nature of the Washington football team name, according to the National Congress of American Indians. The report pointed out several states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Oregon had passed legislature urging or in some cases banning American Indian references used as mascots, team names, or logos. Since then, in June 2015, California joined the ranks of states pursuing mascot legislation. Finally, the report named other professional sports teams that continued to profit from harmful stereotypes by using Native American names, terms, and images. Along with the Redskins, the teams named were the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, Major League Baseball's Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, and the National Hockey League's Chicago Blackhawks.

On Oct. 12, 2014, Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly was an honored guest of Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. Wearing a Redskins hat, Shelly sat next to Snyder in the owner's box during a game between the Redskins and the Arizona Cardinals. The appearance only raised more debate about the name controversy. Critics saw it as a blatant PR more. Defenders of the name saw it as a public showing of support. However, Shelly has been at odds with his tribal council, a council that voted 9-2 to officially oppose the Redskins name in April 2014.

Team Response

In an August 2014, Snyder told ESPN that he would not bow to pressure to change the team's name because it was a term of respect. “It's just historical truths, and I'd like them to understand, as I think most do, that the name really means honor, respect. A Redskin is a football player. A Redskin is our fans. The Washington Redskins fan base represents honor, represents respect, represents pride,“ Snyder said in the interview. That same month Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley posted this on his Facebook page: “I was asked earlier today and answered that I do believe it is probably time for the Washington Redskins to change their team name.“

So far NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has not pressured the team to change its name despite urging from politicians and political groups. In fact, Goodell has said that he stands by Snyder's belief that the name is a term of honor for Native Americans. As public support of the change increases and more politicians call for it to happen, it will be interesting to see if the Redskins keep their name.

Sources: ESPN, National Congress of American Indians, Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies, Washington Post

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