If you want to truly understand just how monumental, how transformative it is that the NFL’s Washington football team on Monday officially dumped its racist nickname, the Redskins, we need to briefly go back in time to the year 1961.
The owner of the organization, George Preston Marshall, had refused to integrate the team, 14 years after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947. Washington was the last NFL team to do so and Marshall once famously said: “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”
Eventually, he was forced to sign black players not because he evolved or became more humane, but because sheer brute force, mainly from the United States government, made him. The Secretary of the Interior, Stewart L. Udall, said if the team didn’t integrate, he’d prevent them from moving into the sparkling new District of Columbia stadium. That, and the fact opposing teams with black players were kicking the team’s ass, forced Marshall’s hand.
Decades after Marshall, another owner of the team, Daniel Snyder, was asked about a different piece of racial ugliness: the team’s dictionary-defined racial slur of a nickname. Would he ever change it, he was asked?
“NEVER,” Snyder told USA Today in 2013. “You can use caps.”
Well, half-past never is here, and Snyder has announced the franchise is changing its name. The reason why is because of two powerful forces he couldn’t control: the changing racial dynamics of the nation after the killing of George Floyd, and the threat of a financial boycott from some of the most powerful corporations in the world.
Those two factors created a snowball that even the stubbornest franchise in the NFL couldn’t stop. In a way, in a morbid way, it took the race-based killing of Floyd to end a racist nickname.
This story is about how pure power armored with racial stubbornness kept the racist Washington nickname monument standing, and it took pure power, mainly financial power, to topple it.
“Dan Snyder and Coach [Ron] Rivera are working closely to develop a new name and design approach that will enhance the standing of our proud, tradition rich franchise and inspire our sponsors, fans and community for the next 100 years,” the team said in a statement.
The team didn’t immediately say what the new nickname would be, but it’s believed the franchise has already picked one, and issues with copyrights are delaying that announcement.
Like a metronome, the team has always ebbed and flowed between stubborn racial regression and remarkable progression. This was the franchise that made Doug Williams a starting quarterback when it wasn’t popular in the NFL to do so. In 1987, he was just one of a handful of black starters at the position, and subsequently became the first black quarterback in a Super Bowl at the end of that season.
But this was also the team that protected the Redskins nickname like it was gold bullion, resisting the pleas of Native and civil rights activists to change it. The team ignored how the name wasn’t just an embarrassment, but also potentially damaging to thousands of indigenous people.
“Native people have had to watch racist caricatures of our identity take the field every Sunday, and that impacts not only how people view us, but also how we view ourselves,” says Crystal Echo Hawk, founder of IllumiNative, a Native-led nonprofit organization focused on increasing representation and challenging negative stereotypes of Native communities. “These mascots propagate offensive stereotypes, and scientific studies have shown they increase rates of depression and anxiety among our youth.”
Like Marshall before him, Snyder didn’t change because of newly discovered humanity. He was forced.
The killing of Floyd changed the racial conversations in America and one of the best examples of that was in sports. Athletes from across the sports world were among the leading edges in the fight to end police brutality. The NFL, which had essentially banned Colin Kaepernick for peacefully protesting police killings of black and brown people in 2016, was forced post-Floyd by its players to acknowledge that for years it hadn’t been supportive in backing the protesting players.
The Floyd killing led to the astounding moment when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in a June 6th videotaped message, said the league was wrong to not back Kaepernick and the protesting players. Goodell also uttered the words: “Black Lives Matter.”
With the NFL becoming pseudo-woke, the league began to privately put pressure on Snyder to change the nickname. As one league source put it: the NFL couldn’t embark on a mission of racial progression with one of its teams having a racist nickname.
Then came the financial pressure. As NFL players began to speak out, sponsors began to take notice, and then action. First, dozens of investment firms worth over $600 billion, as first reported by Adweek, asked Nike, FedEx, and PepsiCo to pull their deals with Washington if the team didn’t change its name.
Those three companies next told the team directly to change its name or lose their business. The most pertinent of the companies was FedEx, which owns the naming rights to the team’s stadium.
The potential loss of billions in revenue sent a chill down Snyder’s spine and within a week of the threats he announced the team would study the nickname. After 87 years, the nickname had died a quick death.
Mike Freeman is a sports business reporter for Sportico, Rolling Stone’s sister company under Penske Media Corporation. For more information on Sportico, visit www.sportico.com and follow Sportico on Twitter @sportico.