How to Tell If a Sports Team Name Is Actually Racist

Illustration for article titled How to Tell If a Sports Team Name Is Actually Racist

Photo: Tom Pennington (Getty Images)

The Washington Football Team used to be called the Washington Redskins. The now discarded mascot endured for nearly a century—from 1933 to earlier this year. The Redskins’ moniker finally met its demise, but it took decades of criticism and campaigning from Indigenous activists to make it happen. Their efforts eventually changed the conversation; prior to the change, recent media coverage consistently called out the team for fostering a culture of flippant racism. Yet for quite a while, the organization’s corporate ownership met the outcry with seeming indifference.

The fight continued, until the change finally happened, perhaps triggering something of a domino effect: In 2018, again only after decades of activism, Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians announced the retirement of mascot Chief Wahoo, removing the cartoonish caricature of an Indigenous American, which first appeared in 1948, from its uniforms and merchandise. Two years later, the team has announced plans to drop its name, too; after the 2021 season, they won’t be the Indians anymore.

The recent announcement raises the question: Could other teams be next? And what, exactly, necessitates a team need change its name? Could the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, or even the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys meet a similar fate? Sports fans sometimes argue the names aren’t a big deal, or even that they actually honor the heritage and history of the cultures that inspired them, but the debate is really about broader issues of injustice that have afflicted society for much longer than professional sports have been around.

Some teams perpetuate racist stereotypes

Ever been to a Kansas City Chiefs game? Under normal circumstances, you’ll likely find 76,000 people chanting in unison, with a “tomahawk chop fight song reverberating off the walls. Some might be wearing headdresses and chugging beer, but you’d likely be hard-pressed to find an Indigenous person in the stands and cheerfully viewing the frenzy as a mass celebration of Native American culture.

Activists have long argued that what you’re witnessing is not veneration of Native American tradition, but rather the appropriation of a culture and the erasure of a genocide campaign that sought to destroy it. The Chiefs famously open each game by trotting out a horse named “Warpaint” with a cheerleader on its back. Then, a ceremonial drum is banged right before kickoff. These hollow lifts from actual Native culture are offensive to some people of Indigenous descent. Vincent Schilling, a Native American journalist, said as much in February in an interview with CNN: “My grandma couldn’t even share what she was really, but they can do a stereotype of it and tell me to be honored by it?”

Crystal Echo Hawk, the founder and CEO of the advocacy group IllumiNative, pulled no punches in her condemnation of the Washington Redskins in an interview with told NPR earlier this year:

The origin of that name is rooted in murder and violence and genocide and hate… it’s a dictionary-defined racial slur, full-stop.

And yes, the Redskins were a particularly egregious example. As Vox points out, the National Congress of American Indians said in a 2013 report that “by the turn of the 20th century [redskins] had evolved to become a term meant to disparage and denote inferiority and savagery in American culture.”

Other pro sports organizations, such as the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League, have flown under the radar, perhaps because they’re not quite as shocking in their portrayal of Native American stereotypes. That, however, might be starting to change. Mike Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University told NPR: “The [Atlanta] Braves and the Blackhawks don’t take a lot of heat for whatever reason. But at this point, I think all sorts of team names are now in play.”

How to know if your team’s name should be changed

As a general rule, if your team’s name sparks the ire of traditionally marginalized groups simply by virtue of existing, then it’s time to change it. Some have drawn parallels to recent moves to remove Confederate names and symbols from schools and cities across the South, a debate that became especially visible during the anti-racism protests of summer 2020, but considering the fight it took to get to this point, suggestions that other, less obviously racist team names might soon follow suit seem overblown.

The name of the Dallas football team, the Cowboys, does draw from a problematic period in history, but doesn’t exactly represent a blatant stereotype of a marginalized group; rather, it suggests a swashbuckling image of masculinity and American heroism. Yes, the Minnesota Vikings owe their name to a marauding group of pillaging warriors, but the real history of the Vikings isn’t integral enough to the American story to really be all that offensive.

That said, if your team does fall into the former camp by relying on stereotypes of marginalized groups, there’s nothing wrong with advocating for a name change. When it’s all said and done, it’s the game you love, not the branding and merchandise—especially if a team’s mascot is deeply rooted in the pain and suffering of others.