The Washington football team announced that it is scrapping its Redskins nickname, nearly three decades after the first major protest of the moniker and logo decried as racist during the 1992 Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
American Indian leaders and some of their longtime allies held a news conference on Monday afternoon at the American Indian Center in south Minneapolis to celebrate a victory many felt was long overdue.
“Black lives matter and Indian lives matter” said Clyde Bellecourt, a national leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who helped organize the 1992 Super Bowl march with his late brother Vernon Bellecourt, the first president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. In the end, he said, the Washington team capitulated because “money matters.”
“Dan Snyder [Washington’s owner] has succumbed to pressures put by FedEx, PepsiCo, Nike and all the sponsors,” said David Glass, now president of the national coalition.
The news media that descended on the Metrodome in January 1992 to cover the Super Bowl were puzzled at the thousands of demonstrators gathered on the plaza to protest the contending Redskins’ nickname as racist.
“What’s it all about?” asked Andy Rooney, at that time a famous pundit for “60 Minutes” who came to see Washington play the Buffalo Bulls. When a reporter explained the reason, Rooney pronounced it “silly.”
Washington, one of the oldest teams in the NFL, did not announce a new name Monday but said it was being reviewed. “Today, we are announcing we will be retiring the Redskins name and logo upon completion of this review,” the statement said. The decision to abandon the name after nearly 90 years came just 10 days after the team said it would reconsider the name. Snyder had stridently defended the name for years.
“Every time the Washington team came here, it has brought our community together. There’s still a long way to go.”
Snyder said the new name, when it is chosen, would “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.”
At the end of June, some of the team’s biggest sponsors, including FedEx, Nike and Pepsi, received letters from investors who called on the companies to cut their ties with the team.
On July 2, FedEx, which pays about $8 million a year to have its name on the team’s stadium in Landover, Md., told the Redskins in a letter that if the team did not change its name, FedEx would ask that its name be taken off the stadium at the end of the season.
The decision to change the name of one of the country’s most valuable professional sports franchises comes after hundreds of universities and schools have abandoned team names and mascots with Native American symbols.
Professional teams like the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL and the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball have resisted changing their names and logos, although the Indians dropped the mascot Chief Wahoo last year and recently said they would review the team name.
Although the Redskins are a Washington, D.C. football team, there were reasons the fight over its mascot was ignited in Minnesota.
AIM was founded in Minneapolis 50 years ago to protest inequality and police misconduct, but it soon expanded into a range of other areas including education, child welfare and team mascots.
“The American Indian Movement was really central to this [protest over the Redskins’ name],” said David Zirin, sports editor of the Nation magazine. “They were the folks who put mascots at the center of the fight for Native American liberation. They saw fighting mascots as part of fighting for humanity. Over the years, whenever Washington came to Minnesota, they had demonstrations.”
American Indians represent 1.6 % of Minnesota’s population, but AIM helped infuse a sensitivity in local residents and leaders to Native American issues. And despite the relatively small numbers of American Indians here, the numbers are far greater than the Indian population of Washington, D.C. which is .006 %.
The reaction Monday from AIM’s supporters who stood alongside the group during the 30-year fight was emotional. “We didn’t give in and didn’t turn around,” said Spike Moss, a Black civil rights activist who joined Bellecourt at the news conference. “It’s hard to look up to Clyde and not tear up,” he said.
“Today is a really good day and I am honored to be here,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Minnesota’s first American Indian in her position. “… There are many more teams left to go,” she said.
“Every time the Washington team came here, it has brought our community together,” said Rebecca Crooks-Stratton, secretary-treasurer of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. “There’s still a long way to go.”
Tyrone Terrill, secretary of the national coalition, said he thought he’d never see the day the team would drop the mascot, but now his group must press on to get the other teams to change their names.
Over the course of the past three decades, a number of prominent Minnesota politicians have weighed in against the nickname, and on Monday they expressed satisfaction that it is being dropped.
“We are now in a moment in America in which society and the marketplace will no longer tolerate, let alone reward, blatant racism,” Fourth District congresswoman Betty McCollum said in a statement. “The decision …is long overdue, but nonetheless welcome.”
Calling the nickname “racist and offensive,” former Gov. Mark Dayton said, “It’s very unfortunate it has taken a terrible tragedy like the murder of George Floyd to force this issue on the Washington management.”
“I think it’s the right thing to do [to change the name] provided they lose to the Vikings,” said former Gov. Arne Carlson.
Former Gov. Jesse Ventura marched in several local demonstrations against the name and could not be reached for comment Monday, but told a reporter a few days ago that the nickname evoked images of genocide. “Black lives matter and so do red ones,” he said.
“How would the players of the NFL feel if they did an expansion to Birmingham, Ala., and they named ’em the Birmingham Slaves? Do you think that’d fly? I don’t. And it shouldn’t. This is the same thing.”
The New York Times and Star Tribune staff writer Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report.