Two things can be true at once: It is good that the Washington NFL team is changing its name, and it is astounding—and shameful—that it still had the name in 2020.
The change, which was inevitable from the moment owner Dan Snyder announced a “thorough review” of the franchise’s name on July 3, was confirmed Monday in a short press release. That thorough review is over, and in those 10 days Snyder apparently finally learned what the rest of the world has long known: The name is awful. The review should have taken all of about five seconds and, crucially, should have happened years ago. “Today, we are announcing we will be retiring the Redskins name and logo upon completion of this review,” the team said in a statement. It continued: “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.”
First of all, the bar to keep a sports nickname for 100 years is incredibly low. Just don’t make it the worst and most offensive one in pro sports. No racism. Second, the “sponsors” part of that statement is more important to Snyder’s decision than the “fans and community” part. FedEx, the team’s stadium name sponsor, asked the organization to change its name and later said in a letter that it would remove its stadium signage if the name remained in place. Nike, the league’s jersey sponsor, wiped the team’s merchandise off its website earlier this month. Amazon pulled the team’s products from its marketplace a few days later. Snyder has fought for the name that is derogatory toward Native Americans in the face of financial consequences before—the team’s trademark was canceled in 2014 before the courts vacated the decision in 2018—but taking on some of the biggest companies in the world was too much. “We’ll never change the name,” Snyder told USA Today in 2013. “It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.” Never is here.
The renewed pressure for the team to change its name is part of a national reckoning with systemic racism and injustice amid a summer of peaceful protest. While news of the change is welcome, it is literally the least Snyder could do. Each of his previous half-measures during his ownership were half-hearted at best. Snyder established a foundation in 2014 to provide resources for tribal communities. The foundation donated $3.7 million in the first year of its existence. That figure dwindled to zero in 2019, the last year that public records were available, according to USA Today. The team couldn’t even spend a dollar to prop up its own misguided PR campaign.
Even given the low bar to clear, the team is now handling the name change process poorly. The old name will remain in use until a new one is found, according to a report from Sports Business Journal. And the old name was listed seven times in the Monday release.
The team did not announce a new name Monday because its preferred replacement is reportedly tied up in a trademark dispute. On this front, the team may be running up against Martin McCaulay, a man who spent tens of thousands of dollars trademarking potential names for the squad: Redtails, Warriors, Monuments, and even “Washington Football Club.” If he has any sort of success with this strategy, it will be because of Snyder’s colossal misunderstanding of reality. Snyder was the last person to acknowledge the inevitable, and someone like McCaulay has the chance to profit off it. This name change was decades in the making for everyone except Dan Snyder.
Stanford University changed its moniker from the Indians to the Cardinal in 1972. St. John’s went from the Redmen to the Red Storm in 1994. Miami (Ohio) became the RedHawks in 1997. In 2005, an NCAA evaluation led seven schools to abandon the name Indians and a handful of others to scrap offensive Native American imagery. A few weeks ago, MLB’s Cleveland Indians said that they, too, are reviewing their name.
The big question now outside of what the new team name will be is whether the name change will coincide with a cultural change inside the organization. In short, will Washington stop being a tire fire anytime soon? Snyder’s team has been a mess for two decades. It has won 42 percent of its games since he became the owner in 1999. No full-time head coach has a winning record under him. There has been no football culture to speak of: If you listed every major decision-making moment for the franchise in the last decade—from Robert Griffin III’s injury management, to the handling of Kirk Cousins’s contract situation, to letting the talented assistants on the Mike Shanahan coaching staff leave the building without much thought, to the medical staff’s treatment of Trent Williams—all of those were bungled.
When I’ve talked to people around the league about Washington, a handful have said the same thing: The team simply hasn’t prioritized winning. This is obvious whenever you look at any of the massive mistakes it’s made during the past 20 years. The name had nothing to do with on-field performance, but it was emblematic of a franchise that wasted lots of energy on the wrong things. Snyder has spent two decades in the NFL, and has not gotten any better at understanding how teams win and lose football games. He did, however, spend two decades defending a deeply offensive name. That was, like with most things in the organization, the wrong decision.
There’s been a lot of dunking on Snyder because of his all-caps remark to USA Today in 2013. The second part of that quote is just as illuminating: “We will never change the name of the team. As a lifelong Redskins fan, and I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.”
Under Snyder there is no tradition, never mind a great one—unless you count frustration, falling attendance to the point of removing seats, and Bruce Allen remaining employed for far too long. Snyder never had an argument for keeping the name. Or for his track record as an owner.
The name change is the bare minimum. It can’t be considered a good start because it is decades overdue. This team still has big problems. It just won’t have its most embarrassing one anymore.