BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 07/07/2020

Thiel: Nickname changes, NFL’s Snyder will not

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder surprised many by considering changing the name of his NFL team. But it has nothing to do with any sudden attack of righteousness.

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, right, shares a rare laugh with his then-coach, Jay Gruden, in 2017 at FedEx Field. / Keith Allison via Wiki Commons

Since 1938, Seattle University’s athletic mascot was the Chieftains. Until 2000, when the school’s president, Rev. Stephen Sundborg, helped lead the change to Redhawks. To the scoffers who eye-rolled at the political correctness, Sundborg offered a simple retort.

“The whole purpose of a mascot is to unite people,” he said at the time. “If it offends people, what’s the purpose?”

Simple.

In the big picture, a sports nickname/mascot is a trifle. But in the out-sized place of sports in American culture, the names somehow swell in significance. Notice the online impatience in the burgeoning hockey audience for Seattle’s expansion NHL franchise to announce the team moniker. The crankiness is sometimes delivered with a conviction worthy of a guy who thinks masks are for sissies.

The fact is that people care about sports nicknames. Yet they evolve and change quite a bit, just as does society. And get pushback from those with no interest in evolving.

Wikipedia has compiled a list of more than 180 nickname changes among colleges alone. Did you know that before “Trojans” was adopted by USC, the private school’s nicknames were the 1) Methodists and 2) Wesleyans?

It reminded me of my long-ago hope that someday a church-affiliated school would have the courage and wit to go with Perambulating Presbyterians. Alas . . .

The nickname topic is newly aflame because, as you may have read, the protests following the George Floyd murder by police have burned hot enough to scorch the sports teams whose nicknames still feature images of Native Americans.

The principal sports perp in the preservation of this racial insult is Daniel Snyder, the misanthrope who has owned the NFL Washington Redskins for 21 years. His resistance was so resolute — asked by USA Today in 2013 if he would ever change the name, he infamously replied, “NEVER, you can use caps” — that hope for progress awaited the club’s sale or his death.

But the nationwide reckoning that has followed demands for an end to racial injustice were sufficiently weighty to finally pull Snyder out of the 1950s. Pressure from Nike, Pepsi and FedEx to pull sponsorships worth more than $600 million also helped.

“In light of recent events around our country and feedback from our community, the Washington Redskins are announcing the team will undergo a thorough review of the team’s name,” the team said in a release last week. “This review formalizes the initial discussions the team has been having with the league in recent weeks.

“Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, stated, ‘This process allows the team to take into account not only the proud tradition and history of the franchise but also input from our alumni, the organization, sponsors, the National Football League and the local community it is proud to represent on and off the field.’”

(Update July 14: Snyder announced that the Redskins nickname will be retired.)

Even though it hadn’t been reported that talks were underway, the statement and the latest public pressure indicates the demands finally reached critical mass, even with a guy who is as blitheringly obstinate as Snyder in defense of a slur.

Change is imminent. Those who know him may be shocked, but they should remember that they believed the franchise was so successful it couldn’t be ruined by a single man. He proved capable of that too.

Don’t take the pending removal of this blight from the nation’s capital as some sort of wokeness by Snyder. There is another financial driver, more than the threatened loss of sponsorship money. It’s about making a whole lot more money.

Snyder is in the market for a new stadium. The 20-year lease on FedEx Field in the Maryland suburbs is up in 2027. Just as important, he wants the stadium to come with a gambling license.

He is intensely lobbying the legislatures in Virginia and Maryland to introduce bills to legalize wagering, even though neither state has a sports-betting industry. Snyder wants to solve for that as the ground-floor guy.

Virginia is further along than Maryland, but he has two to make a market, with the District of Columbia an outsider. A Washington Post story on Feb. 20, before the coronavirus shutdown, detailed Snyder’s ambitions.

“They just seem to be open to anything,” one Maryland lawmaker anonymously told told the Post. “It’s, ‘Whatever you want. Yes, yes, yes.’ ”

To get traction with legislatures under heavy pressure to end police brutality and get serious with reform, there’s no way Snyder can drag in a relic of America’s genocidal past.

So for the opportunity to make scads more money as a casino operator/bookie, Snyder is more than willing to take down his all-caps contentiousness over the name. He might even pick up a few scraps of virtue by seeming to recognize the simple wisdom in Rev. Sundborg’s Seattle U. explainer.

Just don’t believe it. Snyder kept the Redskins-name controversy as his hole card to play when it could bring him value. Notice in the club statement that he didn’t mention current players or coaches as stakeholders in the decision-making.

He doesn’t care. Never has. Never will. He’ll change the name, but he remains offensive as the slur.


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YourThoughts

  • coug73

    My two cents for a new name The Washington Scalawags.

    • art thiel

      Trump will insist on the Donuments.

      • Chris Alexander

        Trump will end up buying out Snyder’s minority partners after he loses the 2020 election and then insist that the name change was just “a hoax” (and or “fake news”) and that, “No matter what the folks in the league office call (them), the team will ALWAYS be the (racially insensitive nickname).”

        And, sadly, while I’m mostly being sarcastic with that statement, I could actually see it happening given the circumstances and the seemingly aligned views of those two men. God help us all if the NFL ends up with the potentially toxic combination of Snyder + Trump + a gambling license. (Sigh)

        • art thiel

          That’s down the list of my nightmare scenarios, but thanks for adding one more.

          • coug73

            I thought NFL owners controlled who bought into a NFL team. Read Trump tried to buy a team and was rejected. Yes?

        • Husky73

          The NFL already told Trump “no way” years ago.

      • Husky73

        We have the Cleveland Brown, after Paul Brown. I’m good with the Washington Mary’s…after Trump’s niece.

  • BB46

    The Washington Red faces

    • art thiel

      Gotta have a sense of shame to be embarrassed.

  • bevdog

    In the case of Seattle University’s President Sundborg stating ” The whole purpose of a mascot is to unite people. If it offends people what’s the purpose”. Would it not be fair to say the same reasoning would apply to to a university as it would to a mascot.

    As we have seen in the past with SU, their reasoning behind their decisions are sometimes misguided. Case in point is Father Sullivan’s decision to eliminate Division 1 sports claiming they did not play an integral part of the university experience or something to that effect.. Hogwash. College athletics at the the D1 level are a BIG DEAL for many students, alumni and sports fans.

    To this day there are many alumni and former players, myself included, that still shake their heads in disbelief at the decision to change the mascot name. As Elgin Baylor said at a special pregame event for former players a few years ago regarding the mascot change name from Chieftains to Redhawks “what’s up with that”. He is not alone in questioning the wisdom of the choice.

    Many cities and counties here in the Pacific Northwest are named after Native American tribes. I have always thought this was done out of respect for the people and the area for which the municipality was named.

    I would like someone to explain why naming our great city after a local Indian Chieftain ( Chief Sealth) who was highly respected and considered to be a great leader is OK but not for SU to proudly associate his name with being a Chieftain.

    It seems to me that a university named after and in honor of an Indian
    Chief should be portrayed as being respectful to a Native American tribe when their mascot is named in honor of a Native American Chief.

    • tor5

      Aside from the hideousness of the Washington team name, there may be a qualitative difference between naming a city or place in honor of a respected individual, and choosing some minority culture icon as a team mascot. Seems the other side of your argument is, why not choose mascot names that can be more inclusive? Who got hurt in the SU name change? Maybe PC can go too far, but I don’t get why we’d cling to a name when a change can be a broadly positive evolution.

      • art thiel

        Good point about the injured parties here. Societal values change over time. What was seen as normal at one point can, with the passage of time, seem abnormal. I never understood how a team named Bullets could represent the nation’s capital with a long history of gun violence.

        • GuyBird

          Remember Art, they started off as the “Baltimore Bullets.”

          • Husky73

            They started as the Chicago Packers.

    • art thiel

      A place named after an indigenous local person or people often can be seen as an honorific. But a sports nickname involving a conquered people invites lousy comparisons in a win/loss competitive setting (“We scalped the Indians — hahah!”) The fact that it doesn’t bother you is irrelevant. The fact that it bothers some descendants of a conquered people matters. Why use an image drawn from our genocidal history to adorn a modern amusement? Are there not wiser choices?

    • RadioGuy

      I don’t have a problem with Washington renaming its NFL team. The current one is not exactly an honorific. And how many of us are old enough to remember that EWU’s teams were called the Savages until they wisely changed to the Eagles back in the 70’s?

      I just don’t see the logic behind Seattle U switching from Chieftains, which IS a name honoring Chief Sealth and it’s not just used for native Americans. The head of Celt clans waaay back in the day was called a chieftain (shoot, there’s a popular musical group with that name based in Dublin), so it’s not exactly an insult the way Redskins or Savages can be seen as.

      Speaking of Chief Sealth (or Seattle, pick your favorite), it’s pretty well-established that he owned slaves years after the Civil War ended, which is pretty offensive. Does this mean we should rename the city now?

      • art thiel

        Chieftains obviously is a broader, less offensive term, but it was adopted in 1938 as a term for a Native American leader and was seen as such. Seattle U. said at the time of the change that it consulted with local Native American leadership who advised that it was offensive. However you want to parse degrees of badness through your eyes, it was their heritage they believed was being diminished by use of it as a sports mascot. As a conquered people remaining on land now owned by the victors, Native Americans deserve at least to be heard on the matter. Seattle U listened, and changed. No injuries were reported.

        As far as Chief Sealth, we can go back to through all leaders with honorifics to find bad things done or said, including all the English explorers who named many places in Western Washington, Alaska and Canada. I’m not willing to spend a lot of my time splitting historical hairs when so much of our immediate future requires our immediate attention. But I am presumptively delighted to see Redskins go away.

        • tor5

          Well said, Art. I for one see a lot of gray area. All heroes have flaws and it won’t be easy to sort through who stays and who goes. It’s too bad that these issues get wrapped up into fights about “patriotism” and such, but such are the times. As for team names, however, that seems like an easy call: Changes could be made in a fun and unifying way. It’s just a freaking mascot. Let’s have fun with it! There are those (like Snyder) who benefit from casting it as culture war, but we can choose to ignore them.

        • Kirkland

          Maybe it depends on how the name is used by the fans. The WHL Spokane Chiefs’ logo is an “SC” with Indian feathers, but their games don’t use Native imagery or chants. The fans just wear the team’s red-and-blue jersey and yell “Chiefs!” after goals, and the mascot Boomer isn’t an Indian, but a dog. Therefore I can’t see them needing to undergo a name change. (Meanwhile, the English rugby team Exeter Chiefs have the Indian logo and tomahawk chop; but is their location in another country an extenuating factor for sensitivity concerns?)

          The Chicago Blackhawks are now undergoing scrutiny for their Indian head mascot. The sticking point is that the team was named for the Black Hawk military unit, which was in turn named after a real Indian chief, known for being a great orator. Also, their jerseys are regarded as one of the NHL’s best, and the logo is nowhere close to as offensive as Chief Wahoo was.

          As for Seattle U, “Redhawks” is so dull. If they were set on rebranding as a bird, they could’ve gone with “Ospreys”, as that’s the species closest to a “Seahawk”, which doesn’t exist in the real world.

      • coug73

        Chief Sealth, aka “the big guy” died June 7th, 1866. Salish Sea tribe and most Native tribes kept slaves.

        • 1coolguy

          You are correct, those were people of conquered tribes, but in today’s pathetic and selective PC world, the progressive LEFT feels justified in choosing who the winners and losers are regarding ALL subjects. Therefore Indians (oops, Native Americans) having slaves is somehow different than early European Americans and therefore get a pass. Ugh…

          • GuyBird

            But why offend people who say it’s offensive if you don’t need to?

    • Kirkland

      wI attended SU in the ’80s, when it was a commuter school, and I can tell you that the students were uninterested in sports. I actually remember the basketball coach giving a PR speech in the student union saying, “Yes, we have a basketball team.” Also, there was a student writing an editorial in the student paper advocating getting rid of the entire athletic department, and using the cost savings to reduce tuition.

      Seattle U would’ve happily stayed NAIA, but then they saw the attention Gonzaga got when their basketball team went gangbusters, and wanted to emulate that. The basketball return to DI has been middling, but the soccer program has been making noise since.

  • Alan Harrison

    It’s funny that those who decry the term “politically correct” don’t understand that the correct depiction is actually “correct.” When Stanford changed their mascot to a color (that’s why it’s singular – it’s not about a bird that is not native to the area), it was less about the word “Indian” than it was about the behavior of the white folks toward that image. Just like Atlanta and KC and Cleveland. Fans of these teams (and Florida State) using “tomahawk chops” are akin to, as weird ol’ Keith Olbermann once said, fans cheering for a team called the Miami Alta Kakers by bouncing the heels of their palms on their foreheads, yelling “Oy! Oy! Oy!”

    • art thiel

      It’s true that the tomahawk chop is the individual’s choice to participate in a gesture that further advances the demeaning stereotype. Imagine you’re a dad answering a six-year-old’s question, “Why do they do that?”

      Let’s not forget that Leland Stanford was a railroad robber baron. I’d vote for a change to Plunkett University.

      • Alan Harrison

        The students voted for the Stanford Robber Barons on the first ballot. Then, when the administration and alumni had a problem with that, they voted for the Stanford Trees. The mascot was the compromise after somebody dug up a sepia-toned withered newspaper article about the Cardinal.

        • art thiel

          Thanks for the reminder of the student vote. Wonderfully subversive.

          • Husky73

            I like the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs. Or the Evergreen State Geoducks.

        • coug73

          I’m partial to the Stanford Sequoias.

  • Husky73

    “simple wisdom”…yes

  • Matt Kite

    I’ve been astonished these last several years that Washington has been so unwilling to rename its mascot. I think a good test is this: would you call your Native American friend a “redskin”? Yeah, I didn’t think so. So how can it be appropriate to use a racist slur as a mascot and profit from it. It’s despicable and should have been changed years ago.

    That said, I’m glad the tide is turning — and on Trump’s watch, no less.

    • art thiel

      See above answer for Snyder’s motivations. He just doesn’t care about people, as testimony from many of his former coaches/employees have shown.

      • Matt Kite

        As they say on the Intertubes, “He seems nice.” Seriously, though, it’s frustrating how one sociopath in a position of power can prop up something so awful, all the while dragging down an entire community.

    • Husky73

      Would there be an uproar if an NFL expansion team called themselves the New Jersey Blackskins? Or the San Jose Yellowskins?

      • Matt Kite

        Exactly. It’s sad how some bad ideas linger long past their expiration date.

  • jafabian

    I’ve always been a bit surprised at Snyder’s resistance at a name change for his football team. It’s a missed opportunity for a rebranding which could translate into even more revenue. I’ve also never understood why the NFL didn’t give him an ultimatum: change the name or we’ll do it for you. And you won’t like it if we do. Now I’m wondering just how Snyder’s ego will take all this. All his golf buddies might give him grief for “caving”. Perhaps he could get one of them to support him by renaming them the Orangeskins?

    • art thiel

      Snyder grew up in the area and claims that the name’s heritage wins out over presumed offense, and uses fan polling to back him, as well as polling among Native Americans. There’s no way the NFL would intervene, because none of the other 31 owners would want such power over them ceded to the front office. And Snyder’s ego is intact because he’s leveraging the change to become the largest sports bookie in either Virginia or Maryland.

  • Seattle Psycho

    The problem with Snyder is he so wants to be Jerry Jones it’s pathetic. As you said, now that it is about money (more about it being taken away then getting) he will do what he must. Perhaps they should do as Tony Kornheiser suggested years ago on PTI; change the decal to a redskin potato and you can keep the name!

    • art thiel

      Tony has been a pal and a hero of mine partly for wisdom such as that.

  • 1coolguy

    As SU was being PC before it was the fashion, shouldn’t they now undergo another name change? Red Hawk was a Sioux CHIEF, so I’m certain someone somewhere is offended by the name.
    https://myvintagephotos.com/product/chief-red-hawk-oglala-sioux-native-american/

  • Husky73

    Great column today by Larry Stone in the Times.