The team was pressured to do what’s right, and won’t acknowledge that.
As they’ve done for years, the National Football League is celebrating progress that should’ve happened decades ago. Wednesday morning, the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins and the Washington Football Team has unveiled their new, incredibly creative name: The Washington Commanders.
With this announcement, the 90-year old NFL franchise officially begins to distance itself from its racist Redskins name and enter a new era as the Commanders, a name too boring to be controversial. In a promotional video revealing the name change, the team shows that it’s made progress but is not open to admitting it also made mistakes. In the under-two-minute video, the team made numerous mentions to honoring the team’s legacy and did so by repeatedly showing the old team name and logo on the screen. The video even goes as far as to zoom in on the old team name, a slur for Native Americans, scrawled across a shirt worn by their Super Bowl-winning quarterback Doug Williams after he beamed that the team and its fans are legends. The closest the team got to admitting wrongdoing was having the voice-over narrator of the video remark “even the greatest legacies evolve or fade.”
According to Commanders head coach Ron Rivera during his CBS Mornings interview earlier today, the team received name suggestions from more than 30,000 people. Rivera believes the name change is part of a larger culture change for the team, but also doesn’t think the organization should be judged for what they did in the past, even though he said in the same interview he wants to still honor the championships the team accomplished in the past. On NBC’s Today Show, former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann intimated the name change was a result of society changing its view on what is acceptable. This is an offensively distorted view of the truth, since Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defined the term “redskin” as “often contemptuous” in 1898 and Native American leaders have asked the team to change its name since 1972, two years before Theismann would even join the team.
In neither one of those interviews did any of the people associated with the Washington Commanders organization mention the Native Americans offended by the old name, or any of the justified pressure the team faced to change the name. If someone unaware of the controversy that preceded the name change heard these interviews without being familiar with the controversy, they’d likely think the team simply changed the name because they felt it was the right thing to do — and not because corporate sponsors were planning to leave them if they didn’t. But, that follows the NFL’s typical M.O. of building a legacy on racial discrimination, getting pressured into doing the right thing, dragging their feet, and then promoting minimal change as a transformative decision while the larger issues persist.
In a sort of poetic irony, the same day the NFL officially rids itself of the racism of the Redskin name, former NFL head coach Brian Flores held his first public interview since suing the league for racist hiring practices. The sequence of these two events highlights how the NFL has barely scratched the surface on its race problem. In just the last season alone, the NFL lost 66% of its Black head coaches because there were only three of them out of 32 NFL teams. There are no Black people in an ownership position at an NFL team. Part of the chapter of the Washington Commanders’ history they’re closing also involves former team president Bruce Allen, who engaged in racist and sexist exchanges with disgraced former Raiders head coach Jon Gruden in emails discovered last year.
So, when a team changes its racist name without mentioning how they were promoting a racist name for decades, it just shows the NFL has a long way to go before it gets serious about fixing its race problem. And the new name sucks.