Washington has some new Commanders in town.
The NFL team announced its new name on Wednesday, 18 months after fresh pressure from sponsors helped convince the once-storied franchise to drop its old moniker following decades of criticism that it was offensive to Native Americans. The organization committed to avoiding Native American imagery in its rebrand after being called the Washington Football Team the past two seasons.
Washington is the latest American major professional team to abandon its name linked to Native Americans, and it was considered one of the most egregious.
Richard Sneed, principal chief of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians based in Cherokee, North Carolina, has stressed Native Americans have more to worry about than names of sports teams, but said during the World Series that Washington was “the only name I felt was derogatory. Yeah, that’s offensive. The rest of them never really bothered me and still don’t bother me to this day.”
While Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Guardians have changed their name, the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and baseball’s Atlanta Braves have said they are not planning to make a similar change.
That doesn’t sit well with IllumiNative, a Native American woman-led social justice organization, though founder and executive director Crystal Echo Hawk praised the move by the Commanders.
“Native mascots are inaccurate and stereotypical depictions of Native culture,” she said in a statement. “They do not honor or celebrate Native peoples but are rather a tool of white supremacy created to dehumanize and objectify us. Research has shown time after time that Native mascots lead to lowered self-esteem and self-worth, and increases rates of depression, self-harm, and violence against Native youth.
“Washington is not the only professional team that has done harm to Native peoples. The continued deliberate inaction from the NFL, NHL, and MLB that continue to shield the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Blackhawks perpetuates and enables an ecosystem of racism and bigotry that directly impacts Native peoples. The Washington Commanders are proof that ending the use of Native American imagery in sports is possible. The Cleveland Guardians are further proof.”
Washington owner Dan Snyder said the change that pays “homage to our local roots and what it means to represent the nation’s capital.”
“As we kick off our 90th season, it is important for our organization and fans to pay tribute to our past traditions, history, legacy and the greats that came before us,” Snyder said. “We continue to honor and represent the Burgundy and Gold while forging a pathway to a new era in Washington.”
President Joe Biden welcomed the name change by posting a picture on Twitter of Commander, his recently acquired German shepherd puppy, in front of the White House.
“I suppose there’s room for two Commanders in this town,” Biden wrote.
From 1932 until two seasons ago, Washington had used the name Redskins — which offended Native Americans and others.
As the Commanders, Washington keeps the same burgundy and gold colors that were around for the three Super Bowl championships in the 1980s and early ’90s glory days. It follows the desire of team president Jason Wright and coach Ron Rivera for the new name to have a connection to the U.S. military.
Commanders was chosen over other finalists such as Red Hogs, Admirals and Presidents. Red Wolves, an initial fan favorite, was ruled out earlier in the process because of copyright and trademark hurdles.
The rebranding process had been going on since the summer of 2020, when team officials opted for the temporary Washington Football Team name that lingered into the 2021 season.
The change comes amid the organization’s latest controversy: dozens of former employees describing a toxic workplace culture, which caused Snyder to commission an investigation that was taken over by the NFL. After the investigation by attorney Beth Wilkinson’s firm, the league fined Washington $10 million and Snyder temporarily ceded day-to-day operations of the team to his wife, Tanya, while he focused on a new stadium agreement.
The league did not release a written report of Wilkinson’s findings, a move that sparked criticism. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform is holding a roundtable discussion Thursday with a handful of former team employees to discuss their experiences.
Getting a stadium deal done is next on the agenda for Snyder and his front office. The team’s lease at FedEx Field expires after the 2027 season and momentum is building for an agreement in Virginia, though sites in Maryland and the District of Columbia are still under consideration.
—Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press