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Does a Sports Team Nickname Really Matter?

On Friday, President Barack Obama said he would consider changing the nickname of the NFL Washington Redskins, in response to a growing faction who believes the nickname is offensive.

Does a Sports Team Nickname Really Matter?
President Barack Obama weighed in on the topic of changing the nickname of the Washington Redskins. Photo courtesy Nico_ via Creative Commons license.

The Washington Redskins have been a member of the NFL since 1932. While not one of the original teams, they’re certainly steeped in NFL history.

In recent years, many sports teams at the collegiate level have changed their nicknames in response to critics who deemed their former nicknames to be offensive to Native Americans. However, professional sports teams have not been quite so quick to follow suit.

On Friday, President Barack Obama weighed in on the issue, speaking specifically about the team that plays in the city Obama works in—Washington D.C.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Obama indicated that if he owned the Redskins, he would consider a name change.

Obama said the name definitely offends “a sizable group of people,” and that he would definitely at least consider acquiescing to their demands that a more palatable nickname be adopted.

"I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things," Obama said.

At the college level, St. Johns University in New York changed their team nickname from Redmen to Red Storm in 1995. Stanford University changed their team nickname from Indians to Cardinals way back in 1972. It was later changed to the singular Cardinal.

Marquette University was known as the Warriors for many years. In 1994, they officially changed to the Golden Eagles.

But the Redskins are still the Redskins, and that likely won’t change anytime soon, despite President Obama’s comments.

Team owner Dan Snyder has owned the franchise since 1999, and he is not about to bow down to protesters and opponents. He has steadfastly stood up for his team’s nickname.

The Redskins aren’t the only team who have a growing faction of protesters who want change. In Major League Baseball, calls to change nicknames for the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves have also made the news.

The Braves have at least listened to objections to a certain extent. In February, facing mounting criticism, the Braves scrapped the idea of placing the “Screaming Indian” logo on their caps, turning instead to a traditional letter “A.”

The Indians still prominently feature its traditional “Chief Yahoo” logo on much of their licensed apparel and use for marketing purposes as well.

But in a sport that is incredibly resistant to change, the idea of changing team nicknames is probably decades away from happening.

In the NFL, however, there could come a day when Snyder is forced to bow down under pressure. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who for years supported the Redskins name, recently changed his stance, saying that the NFL needs to react and respond to change when fans have enough of a voice. Growing up in Washington, Goodell fully understands the history of the Redskins.

“So I know the team name is part of their history and tradition, and that’s something that’s important to the Redskins fans,” Goodell said. “And I think what we have to do though is we have to listen. If one person’s offended, we have to listen. And ultimately, it is Dan’s decision. But it is something that I want all of us to go out and make sure we’re listening to our fans, listening to people who have a different view, and making sure that we continue to do what’s right to make sure that team represents the strong tradition that it has for so many years.”

However, in a poll conducted by the Washington Post back in July, 66 percent of local residents did not favor a nickname change.

That’s pretty decisive.

It’s Snyder’s team, and as long as he’s the principal owner, the Redskins name won’t change. Does that make him insensitive? Or does it really matter what a team is called?

It doesn’t mean in any way that Snyder is intolerant, or that he’s prejudiced. He believes strongly in the history of his franchise, and it’s his wish to honor that history.

I completely get the concerns of Native Americans, who had their rights trampled on for many years. But changing a team nickname won’t make things better or worse. It’s just change. 

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