In a move that has reignited a long-standing debate, Josh Harris, along with co-owner Mitch Rales and a consortium that now includes Magic Johnson, assumed control of the Washington Commanders NFL team. For Harris, this was a dream come true, as he had grown up cheering for the team alongside legends like Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer, Joe Theismann, and others. The team’s storied history, including three Super Bowl championships, made it a cherished part of their childhoods.
Rales shared a similar sentiment, recalling how he had relocated to the Washington area and switched allegiances from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the then-Redskins. However, the team’s name changed in 2020 when former owner Dan Snyder, under pressure from sponsors during the national conversation on racism following George Floyd’s tragic death, made the decision to drop the name he had staunchly defended for over two decades.
Now, with the new ownership group led by Harris openly referencing the former name, the debate has resurfaced regarding what the franchise should be called moving forward, less than two years since the rebranding to the Commanders.
While it appears unlikely that Washington will revert to being the Redskins, advocates on both sides and sports marketing experts are divided on the best path forward.
Michael Lewis, a sports marketing and analytics specialist at Emory University, noted the decline in the Washington Redskins’ brand and speculated that the new owners might want to reconnect with the team’s heritage to revive its former glory.
Coach Ron Rivera echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the team’s traditions, alumni, and its rich history. However, he also stressed that any reference to the old name would be done with utmost respect for Native tribes and American Indians.
On the other hand, Native American advocacy groups and many in the sports community view any mention of the old name with deep concern. Crystal Echo Hawk, the founder of the Native American-led nonprofit IllumiNative, expressed shock and dismay at the resurgence of the old name, considering it a step backward after the hard-fought victory to retire the derogatory term.
The debate over the term “redskin” is contentious. Some argue that it refers to a Native bloodroot ceremony for warriors rather than skin color, presenting it as a status symbol. Advocates like Billy Dieckman of the Native American Guardians Association have even started a petition to bring back the old name.
However, Team president Jason Wright, who has been at the helm of the organization’s business side since 2020, unequivocally stated that a return to the old name is not being considered.
The renewed use of the old name has sparked reactions from Native American advocacy groups. While some see it as a perpetuation of harm and dehumanization, others believe it presents an opportunity for a fresh start and a chance to redefine the team’s identity.
Charles Grantham, director of the Center for Sports Management at Seton Hall University, believes that changing the team’s culture is more critical than debating its name, especially in the wake of the Snyder scandals that prompted the ownership change.
Despite the controversies surrounding the name, there is undeniable demand for the team. Thousands of fans flocked to training camp, and the season opener at FedEx Field against Arizona was announced as sold out.
Harris, when addressing the Commanders’ name, emphasized that it’s about how the city feels. A Washington Post poll conducted in February 2022 found that 49% of District of Columbia residents either disliked or hated the new moniker.
While opinions on the Commanders’ name vary, one thing remains clear: the legacy of the old name, Redskins, is steeped in controversy and racism, making it a contentious issue that continues to divide both fans and advocates alike.