World Cup


The Commanders: NFL team in Washington, DC gets new name

Washington joins other major professional sports teams to drop names Indigenous people say are racist.

New Commanders sign
Native American activists and advocacy organisations have long campaigned to get the Washington NFL team to drop its previous name [Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

The National Football League (NFL) team in Washington, DC will now be called the Commanders, after a lengthy review on how to replace the franchise’s previous name, which Indigenous people said was racist.

The American football team’s new name was unveiled on Wednesday, after a public pressure campaign led by Native Americans as well as a threatened loss of sponsors forced the squad to drop its previous name in 2020.

The organisation also committed to avoiding Native American imagery in its rebrand after being called the Washington Football Team during the past two seasons.

“As an organization, we are excited to rally and rise together as one under our new identity while paying homage to our local roots and what it means to represent the nation’s capital,” team co-owner Dan Snyder said in a statement.

Dan and Tanya Snyder
The organisation also committed to avoiding Native American imagery in its rebrand [Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

Snyder, who bought the franchise in 1999, had long fought off public pressure to rebrand and went as far to say the club would never change its name.

But Native American advocacy groups had campaigned for years to get the team to drop its previous name, and that pressure ramped up amid a nationwide reckoning on racism and police brutality triggered by the 2020 police killing of George Floyd.

Snyder eventually changed his stance after FedEx Corp, which owns the naming rights to the team’s suburban stadium in Landover, Maryland, urged the club to rebrand. PepsiCo and Nike both followed FedEx’s lead and said they welcomed the call for a review of the name.

Ray Halbritter, a representative of the Oneida Indian Nation and leader of the Change the Mascot campaign, said Wednesday’s announcement signalled an “historic development for Native Americans, civil rights advocates, sports fans, and most importantly, our future generations”.

“This is a victory for all of those around the world seeking to advance inclusivity and respect in our societies,” Halbritter said in a statement (PDF).

“While the official changing of the name is cause for celebration, today’s announcement by the Washington NFL team should not be treated as a simple rebranding … It is important we never forget what it took to get to this moment, and recognize how social change like this is possible. We must not erase from history the damages done by a dictionary defined slur — nor the lack of formal apology from this organization or the NFL for its use.”

The Commanders name was the result of an 18-month process that the team said included more than 40,000 fan submissions, countless surveys, focus groups and meetings.

The Washington team has won three Super Bowls and is one of the NFL’s marquee franchises, ranked by Forbes last August as the league’s fifth most valuable franchise at $4.2bn.

Many professional and collegiate sports teams have names on Native American themes, and the push to have those organisations change their names continues.

“While we continue the push to educate society on what respect for Tribal Nations calls for, we invite all sports leagues, schools, and corporations to participate in this long-overdue movement for change,” the National Congress of American Indians said on Twitter on Tuesday, using the hashtag #NotYourMascot.

Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Atlanta Braves and the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks have defended keeping their names.

MLB’s Cleveland franchise said last July that it would change its name to the Guardians after the 2021 season, a move that drew praise from Native American groups who had long viewed the team’s old name as disparaging.

In Canada, the Canadian Football League (CFL) team in Edmonton, Alberta, officially rebranded as the Elks last year after facing similar pressure to change its previous name.

New team merchandise
The Commanders name was selected after an 18-month rebrand process [Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies