The Washington Football Team missed a big opportunity last week. We could have gotten to know more about the organization. We could have learned about its values, purpose and rich history. Instead, we just got a name – The Commanders.
In 1933, the Boston Braves moved to Washington, D.C. and changed its name to the Washington Redskins. The owner at the time, George Preston Marshall, expressed a desire to bring “Indian football” back to the NFL. This style of football was known for its trick plays and the first spiral pass by teams like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and the Haskell Institute. While that sounds really cool, it is important to note that boarding schools during this era were created to forcibly assimilate Native American children into society.
We don’t really know the real reason the Redskin name was chosen. Maybe it was to honor William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, a football coach with Indigenous roots. Maybe it was to celebrate the style and success of “Indian football.” Maybe it was to create the fiercest and most offensive caricature to intimidate opponents and capture the imagination of fans.
We know why the name was changed. It was insulting to and a source of pain for an entire community. But, a name change doesn’t require an organization to completely abandon its history. It could have honored the rich heritage of Indigenous People in North America. It could have been used as a vehicle to educate generations of football fans. It could have revealed the purpose of the organization.
Seventy-eight percent of Americans believe companies must do more than just make money; they must positively impact society as well. Seventy-six percent say they are more likely to trust a company that leads with purpose. Seventy percent are more likely to defend the same company.
The Commanders could really use some defenders right now. The NFL just concluded an investigation, and Congress is considering issuing subpoenas. There are several allegations of a hostile work environment. Defining and sharing its purpose and creating a positive culture is going to require much more than changing a name. But, it would have been an amazing place to start.
For a moment, imagine the new name paid tribute to one or all of the tribal nations surrounding the Washington, D.C. region like the Anacostans, Piscataway, Pamunkey, Nentego, Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Monacan and Powhatan. In so doing, the team could have extended an olive branch, and celebrated the contributions of the Indigenous People.
For instance, the Washington Terrapins. I know that name is already taken by the University of Maryland – indulge me. The word terrapin comes from the Algonquian people. Do you know anything about the Algonquian people? I don’t, but I would if the Washington Terrapins, the fifth richest NFL franchise, elevated the stories and traditions of the Algonquians and other tribal nations.
Perhaps the Terrapins would produce branded educational materials to be distributed in local schools? Maybe they would place vestibules around the stadium to inform fans about the tribal customs and protocols that once existed in the region. What if they became advocates for truth and reconciliation as we learn more about the horrors of Indian boarding schools.
In July, after meeting with some Native American leaders, the team announced there would be no Native American imagery. The name the Warriors was scrapped. I wonder if they considered any positive imagery. I wonder if they considered how future generations of Americans would be less ignorant about Indigenous People, because most of us are clueless. There are still several teams using questionable and/or derogatory names and images in sport. When it comes time for their name change, I hope they embrace the opportunity.