Hail to the rename: Indigenous advocates welcome new Washington team name

Former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann looks on Wednesday as the Washington Football Team announces its new name, the Washington Commanders, at FedExField. The move came 18 months after the team dropped its longtime name that many considered a slur on Native Americans. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – Native American advocates welcomed the announcement Wednesday that Washington’s pro football team will now be called the Commanders, ending a yearslong fight to get rid of a name many deemed racist.

It was also a turnaround for team owner Daniel Snyder, who had said he would never drop the name, which the team had been called since before moving to Washington in 1937.

But mounting corporate and public pressure after the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 started the 18-month process to drop the name, a move advocates welcomed as a good step, but just the “first step … for healing and reconciliation.”

“For 90 years, the Washington Football Team perpetuated discriminatory and racist behavior both through their use of a dictionary-defined racial slur as a team name and a false and offensive caricature of Native culture as a mascot,” Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative, said in a statement.

Josh Silver, who founded Rebrand Washington Football in 2015, with two other longtime fans to “undo the damage” of the team’s name, said the group collected 11,000 petition signatures calling on the team to change its “very demeaning” name.

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“This was the name of a team in the nation’s capital, symbolic of our racist past,” in a country that still struggles against racism today, Silver said.

But the only mention of the past by team officials Wednesday was to talk about the team’s legacy – not its former name. Snyder made no mention of the name’s history, focusing instead on the team’s next chapter.

“As an organization, we are excited to rally and rise together as one under our new identity while paying homage to our local roots and what it means to represent the nation’s capital,” he said.

As recently as 2013, Snyder told USA Today that he would “never” drop the team name, adding, “It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.”

The team had been under pressure for years to change the name. Members of Congress and the D.C. Council called for the team to drop the racist name and the team was sued more than once by groups challenging the name.

The legal fight included a challenge to the team’s trademark on its name. A group led by Amanda Blackhorse, a member of the Navajo Nation, charged that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cannot register trademarks for terms that “disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute.”

The Trademark Trials and Appeal Board agreed in 2014, and that decision was later upheld by a court that said the team could keep the name but could not hold and enforce a trademark on it.

The Washington Football Team changed its name Wednesday to the Washington Commanders, two years after the team dropped a name that many called a racist slur on Native Americans. (Photo courtesy Washington Commanders)

Snyder and the team fought back against those efforts. But the death of George Floyd triggered protests across the country and highlighted the ongoing frustrations by Native Americans. The change also came after sponsors like Nike and FedEx threatened to sever relationships with the team over the name.

“The tragic murder of George Floyd created a national moment for change,” Silver said. “But it was clear that if advocates did not put the issue on the table, then the corporate sponsors would not have known that this was a serious issue.”

Snyder retired the old name and logo July 13, 2020, starting an 18-month rebranding process during which the team changed its name to the Washington Football Team. That name was dropped Wednesday in favor of Commanders.

Echo Hawk said advocates were not deterred by the yearslong fight over the team name, and she does not think the fight will stop with Wednesday’s announcement, pointing to other Native American team mascots, from the high school level to the pros. She called the Commanders’ announcement “a first step.”

“We will not rest until the NFL, MLB and NHL, collegiate and K-12 sports end all use of Native sports mascots, names, and imagery and ban racist fan behaviors that perpetuate harm to Native peoples,” her statement said.

Silver welcomed the news, but agreed that “the work is not finished.”

“There’s still some other professional teams with Native American stereotypes and there’s almost 2,000 high schools that still need to rebrand that have Native American mascots,” he said. “Hopefully this really continues the momentum and speeds up the change that still needs to occur in this country.”

Emily Sacia eh-mih-lee say-sha
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Emily Sacia expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Sacia, who has reported for North Central News, Downtown Devil and AZ Big Media, also works as an editorial assistant for ASU Thrive. She is working in the D.C. news bureau.