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Debate over the name of Washington's NFL team is starting all over again

A day after assuming control of the Washington Commanders, Josh Harris beamed about taking over the NFL team he and co-owner Mitch Rales rooted for as kids.

"I grew up with Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer, Joe Theismann, Mark Rypien, Doug Williams, Joe Gibbs, the Hogs, Darrell Green, John Riggins and the rest of these legends and three Super Bowl championships," Harris said. "The then-Redskins were the team that everyone wanted to be a part of."

Commanders Old Name Debate Football
josh Harris, the leader of a group buying the Washington Commanders, speaks at an introductory NFL football news conference at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., on July 21, 2023. It was noticeable when Harris and fellow new Commanders owner Magic Johnson referred to the old Redskins name in their opening news conference. Alex Brandon / AP

Rales talked about moving to the area and giving up the Pittsburgh Steelers for the "then-Redskins." The team hasn't been called that since 2020 when Dan Snyder, under pressure from sponsors during the national reckoning on racism following the death of George Floyd, dropped the name he insisted over two decades as owner he'd never abandon.

With the group led by Harris that also includes Magic Johnson now referencing the former name, the debate is raging again over what the storied franchise is called today and should be called moving forward.

Controversy is back

While it's almost certain Washington won't be the Redskins again, advocates on both sides and experts watching carefully are split on the path forward less than two years since the Commanders re-brand.

"The Washington Redskins used to be probably a top-10 NFL brand," said Michael Lewis, an Emory University marketing professor who specializes in sports marketing and analytics. "When I look at the data these days, they are probably the worst on just about every marketing metric. And so (the new owners) may have the intuition that we've got to steer it back to that heritage."

That was certainly coach Ron Rivera's message. When NBA star Kevin Durant made an appearance at training camp, Rivera said he knew "how much of a Washington Redskins/Commanders fan" he is. That came a week after Harris, Rales and Johnson publicly said the old name, which had been shunned over the past three years.

"Mr. Harris and that ownership group talked extensively about bringing back the glory," Rivera said. "What Coach Gibbs did, the traditions, that alumni group of guys that are around, it's hard to escape it. It really is. And that's just the truth of the matter. And just so everybody knows, we do that with the utmost respect for the native tribes, for the American Indian. Any time that's brought up, it is brought up with the utmost of respect."

Native American advocacy groups that fought to get rid of the name and others around sports don't see it that way. Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of the Native American-led nonprofit IllumiNative, said she was shocked, disgusted and stunned to hear the old name spoken again openly by team officials.

"It just felt like we slid back," she said. "After everything that happened and the hard-fought victory to finally retire the dictionary-defined racial slur and everything that came post-George Floyd, it is just mind-blowing to me."

Webster's New World College Dictionary's entry for "redskin" says it is "now considered by many to be an offensive term."

One group pushing for the old name to return argues the opposite. Billy Dieckman, of the Native American Guardians Association, which has started a petition to bring back the old name, contends the term refers to a Native bloodroot ceremony for warriors, not a reference to skin color.

A "fresh start"?  

"It's a status symbol. It's not about ethnicity," said Dieckman, whose name as a member of the Kiowa Tribe in Oklahoma is Tsay Goon Pi Tahlee. "The fact that (the new owners are) actually using the terminology again means a lot because it's like they have an opportunity for a fresh start, and if they want to get that fresh start, this is the perfect opportunity."

A fresh start - eventually another re-brand - is possible, but a return to the old name doesn't appear in the cards. Team president Jason Wright, who was hired by Snyder in the summer of 2020 to run the business side of the organization and has remained in that job under new ownership, said on Washington radio last week it was "not being considered - period."

That statement garnered criticism from the Native American Guardians Association - and praise from IllumiNative and the National Congress of American Indians, which said it wrote to the team in response to the renewed use of the old name to reiterate its opposition to Native mascots and imagery.

"The use of unsanctioned Native 'themed' sports mascots perpetuates harm and dehumanizes our citizens, impacting both Native and non-Native individuals, and particularly our children," NCAI executive director Larry Wright Jr. said in a statement.

"NCAI remains committed to fostering a proactive partnership with Washington 'Commanders' leadership, ensuring that harmful pasts are not repeated with future generations."

Possible paths  

While Lewis, the marketing professor, questions the upside of using the old name, he acknowledged the human nature of some longtime fans not feeling welcome since it was dropped.

That, he believes, could be solved by emphasizing the city - which was part of the transition period in 2020 and '21 when "Washington Football Team" was the official name.

Charles Grantham, director of the Center for Sports Management at Seton Hall University, thinks talk about the name is secondary to changing the culture within the organization in the aftermath of the Snyder scandals that prompted the ownership change.

"The interest is there," Grantham said. "The demand for the team is there. There's no question about that. But what's required and what's needed is a cultural change, which Josh and Magic and the other 20-odd owners are pushing for."

Evidence of that demand is clear: Camp drew thousands of fans, and the Commanders announced the Sept. 10 season opener at FedEx Field against Arizona was sold out.

Harris, when asked about the Commanders name at his introductory news conference, said it wasn't about how he felt but "about how the city feels about all this stuff."

A Washington Post poll conducted in February 2022 just after the name change found that, among 904 District of Columbia residents, 49% either disliked or hated the new moniker.

"It's generic," Lewis said. "The branding concept of the Commanders, they may have paid a lot of money for it, but it's something that students would come up with in half an hour."

Echo Hawk agrees about the shortfall of the Commanders name - just not with bringing back the past.

"So many people think that the Commanders name is a horrible name, so I'm not surprised that they might want to change that," she said. "But why you would slide back into a legacy of racism is beyond me."

For the new owners, specifically Harris and Rales, Redskins was the name of the team when they were growing up in Maryland and going to RFK Stadium as fans.

"We never missed a game," Rales said.

That also was when Washington was winning. Under Gibbs, the team won the Super Bowl three times in the 1980s and early '90s.

Under three different names, Washington has made the playoffs just six times in 30 years.

"The Redskins have three Super Bowls. The Commanders have zero," Lewis said. "It's that simple at some level."

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