Native American Groups Hail Washington Football Team Name Change

Activists protest the Washington NFL team name before a game outside TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Photo credit Fibonacci Blue/Creative Commons

When Tyrone Terrill of Minneapolis heard that the Washington NFL football franchise was retiring its controversial team name and logo, he couldn’t contain his excitement. 

Terrill, secretary of the National Council Against Racism in Sports and Media (NCARSM) and a prominent civil rights activist in Minneapolis, immediately reached out to his long-time friend, Clyde Bellecourt, known as the “Native American Martin Luther King,” to share the emotional moment.

“We cried. That’s what it meant to us. It was a day of tears of great joy,” Terrill said. “…This was the one we thought we would never get.”

For Native American groups, the July 13 announcement was the culmination of decades of work to pressure team owner Daniel Snyder into removing Native American iconography from the team name and logo. The old team moniker, “Redskins,” was widely considered a racial slur, defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “dated” and “offensive” towards Native Americans. Still, Snyder refused to consider a name change until FedEx threatened to pull its sponsorship, a move that would have cost the team $45 million.

Native American groups have long advocated for the name change, protesting outside of Washington games and other sporting events. Sundance, a prominent indigenous activist,  said the name change will help fans realize how demeaning language can hurt Native Americans. 

“These images perpetuate marginalization and genocide through dehumanization,” said Sundance, executive director of the Cleveland American Indian Movement and a member of the Muscogee tribe. “They disregard tribes’ contemporary cultural experiences and put greater value on fictionalized, nostalgic images The Washington Football name change will shift the cultural consciousness of those in power eventually.”

Native American groups are still angry over other teams’ names and practice rituals, such as the tomahawk chop famous at Atlanta baseball and Kansas City football games. But, many worry that nothing will change without more corporate coercion. 

“It will take the same pressure from sponsors and the community to require teams to . . . do the right thing,” said Gaylene Crouser, the executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center and a member of the Lakota tribe.

The discussion about Native American mascots has had ripple effects throughout the entire sports world, with the Cleveland Indians MLB team also exploring a name change. Sundance, who successfully lobbied the local high school in Oberlin, Ohio to change its mascot, thinks there can now be more progress in the state.

“The actions of Cleveland baseball will have a positive effect on the Ohio public school system, which has native mascots pervading its many school districts,” Sundance said. “Already this is encouraging dialogue throughout the state.”

While the Washington name change is a major victory for Native American interests, groups like NCARSM show no signs of slowing their activism any time soon. 

“Once we did the press conference Monday, we were on to dealing with Kansas City, Cleveland, and Atlanta,” Terrill said. “But the one thing that the Washington situation has taught us is to go grab those big sponsors.”

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