Professional Sports Teams Changing Racist Logos and Names


Photo via John Bazemore/AP

Sports, like much of the world, is deeply entrenched in history and tradition. The NFL will always play on Thanksgiving, the NBA on Christmas, and the MLB on July 4. The common saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is applicable for a lot of things in sports. However, as many remain stagnant, others do not share the same fate. As the 21st century crawls on, there is a growing emphasis to remove the “old school” team names that are deemed to be racist or upsetting. 

There are two sides to this issue. The first is in favor of this overhaul of the names of certain teams in order to align better with the ever progressing society. The opposition is very set in tradition and keeping things consistent. No matter which side of this spectrum one finds themselves on, it is impossible to ignore. 

The NFL is the perfect example of these clashing thought processes. Take Washington’s local team, the Washington Football Team, formerly known as the Washington Redskins since their inception in 1932. However, before the 2020 season, they were forced to change their name due to corporate sponsors threatening to pull funding. From 1932-2020, nearly 90 years, the team had one name and identity. Take away the success, or lack thereof depending on one’s outlook, with looking at this decision. It is so difficult to just change the identity of the team for the fanbase. After a long “deliberation period”, Washington executives settled on naming the team “Washington Football Team ” as a temporary name. As it currently stands, the team is set to announce a permanent name in the coming months. However, for the first few weeks after the announcement for WFT, they quickly became the butt of countless jokes for NFL fans. 

Although the jokes were somewhat amusing, it was potentially lost as to why the team was forced to change their branding. The outlash in recent years from the Native American population concerning the term “Redskins” being used only intensified over the course of the Black Lives Matter protests. There was a lot of talk about reform coming from those protests and sports were not immune to the critiques. Many were calling for the adjustments of some “old fashioned” names and traditions. At the top of the list, Washington was forced to adapt due to corporate pressure and public outlash. Strangely enough, the team has been talking about a potential rebrand for years, however they only managed to come up with what many consider to be a default name. In all honesty, it raises more questions than answers about the ownership in Washington than anything else as the reluctance to change and the astounding idiocy demonstrated by the team confounded countless. 

Shifting over the baseball, there was yet another team who was put on the hot seat due to their insensitivity towards the Native American population. The Cleveland Indians have been known by that moniker since before World War I. Since the “Ex-skins”, they were put under a microscope, but unlike Washington, their criticism revolved around their logo. Chief Wahoo, their former mascot, a Native American man who appeared to look more savage than human. Before the 2019 season, the team retired the logo, opting to use a block “C” as their primary logo instead. However, they kept the nickname “Indians” despite the change. After Washington changed their branding, it appeared that Cleveland was next on the chopping block. To the surprise of few, over the summer, the marketing team announced that the team was changing their name to the Cleveland Guardians effective immediately following the 2021 season. 

The most interesting aspect of this shift is not why they chose the name. The reason given by the Cleveland marketing team was that the team served as a “guardian of the lakes” in the region. The most fascinating part of it was the word “guardians” itself. See, both “Guardians” and “Indians” share the same last four letters (“ians”). Therefore, the social media department and marketing team had an easy job with keeping some historic images. Simply, they were able to photoshop the first few letters on the old uniforms off in social media posts. In the past week, though, the name change has hit a few snags. A local roller derby team has sued the organization over the use of their name that has been trademarked. Like in many cases of this nature, it appears that Cleveland will settle with the roller derby team out of court. 

Now, the question remains as to who is next to see their branding changed. The obvious answer is most likely the Kansas City Chiefs, but their branding is not as insensitive as it is celebratory. The attention has shifted to baseball. As the Atlanta Braves won the National League Pennant, national media has found something that has become a very controversial subtopic in the series. 

While it might not be remembered statistically, members of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) have raised concerns over the Braves. The biggest things that have drawn the ire of the group has been their notable “Tomahawk Chop” that is done frequently during Braves home games. Tuesday, Commissioner Rob Manfred said that “Baseball does not market our game on a nationwide basis” in response to a question concerning the Chop. “The name ‘Braves, the tomahawk adorning the team’s uniform, and the ‘tomahawk chop’ that the team exhorts its fans to perform at home games are meant to depict and caricature not just one tribal community but all Native people, and that is certainly how baseball fans and Native people everywhere interpret them,” NCAI Fawn Sharp said in a lengthy media release. He goes on to call on the league and fans to listen to the views of Native people not only in Atlanta, but the country. The NCAI has been one of the loudest groups calling for logos and mascots to change. He goes on to call the Tomahawk Chop offensive and dehumanizing. Later in the statement, though, Sharp does credit Cleveland for being understanding and respectful in their rebranding. 

Now, these professional teams are not the only transgressor. Teams like Florida State University come to mind. They not only do the Tomahawk Chop as well, but they also have a tradition of a Native American named Osceloa who rides in on a horse with the football team and plants a flaming spear on the midfield logo. It is one of the most overtly racist and insensitive things in sports, but it has yet to really need any change. That is due to a self described “mutualistic relationship” by the Florida Seminole Tribe who receive benefits from the school in return for using certain aspects of their culture. For example, there is a clause in FSU admissions that Florida Seminoles can exploit to legally obtain an advantage in admissions. 

For many, this entire ordeal is trivial and obnoxious as some of these teams have been using such monikers since before many of these protesting organizations were even founded. Nonetheless, the times are changing. As the NFL puts messages in the back of the endzones that read “End Racism”, it is important for these organizations to not only condemn racism internally with employees, but with the identity of the teams. Changing the names of historic teams is not a topic that will quickly be ushered into the past or pushed under the rug. In life and sports alike, time is like a steamroller without brakes: it is going to roll on regardless of what is in its way.