The history of the “Washington Football Team” name & how we got here


Image via WTOP

Noah Shubert, Staff Writer

Ever since the 14-2, Joe Gibbs-coached, Air Coryell offense led by Mark Rypien hoisted the Lombardi trophy in 1991, the NFL team that calls Washington D.C. home has been the model of consistency… consistently mediocre, that is. The 28 years following that Super Bowl saw only six playoff berths, and a total of 16 losing seasons. Washington’s on-field performance is not the only thing that has been controversial, as a long, drawn-out battle over the name of the team finally culminated this summer with some progress. 


After a summer filled with drama and controversy, the team sits at a laughable 3-7 (yet still only 0.5 games out of the playoffs) with a disgruntled quarterback, an inept owner, and technically, a new identity.


Founded in 1932 as the Boston Braves, the team adopted the name “Redskins” the following year. Founder George Marshall hired William Henry Dietz as the team’s first head coach, who claimed to be part Sioux, to ease any concerns over the name. The team then relocated to Washington DC in 1937, where they won two NFL Championships before a 25-year playoff drought from 1945-71 sunk them back down to mediocrity (sound familiar?). Bad play was not the only thing that plagued the organization, as Marshall faced heavy criticism for being the last NFL team to integrate its lineups. The Department of the Interior ended up having to step in, and threatened to bar the team from using the newly-constructed RFK Stadium, which resided on federal land. It took until 1962, two decades after teams began integrating their rosters, for the Redskins to include Black players in their starting lineups, with Bobby Mitchell being the trailblazer for the organization.


50 Years Ago, Redskins Were Last N.F.L. Team to Integrate - The New York Times
Image via The New York Times

Now, 58 years later, the Washington Football Team is in the middle of a new racial issue. The usage of the team name has been challenged and debated for years, acting as somewhat of a hindrance to the franchise. For instance, owner Dan Snyder has lobbied to be able to build a new stadium on the old RFK Stadium site, but once again the Department of the Interior stands in the way, this time advocating for a new mascot. 


The term is viewed by many as a racist and derisive name for Native Americans. Originally used by Natives in the 18th century to distinguish themselves from White people, the term became derogatory as the relationship between Natives Americans and European settlers worsened over the following decades. Documents from the mid-to-late 1800s paint a picture of distaste towards Native Americans, being referred to as “…devils,” “greasy…” and “the most treacherous…” using the slur.  As mentioned before, George Marshall refracted initial questions and justified the name by hiring a coach who claimed to be partially Native American, which continues to be unproven.


Tensions over the name peaked this summer, following the racial justice protests over the deaths of figures like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Washington’s main sponsor, FedEx, who holds the naming rights to their current stadium, released a statement asking for the name to be changed, threatening to retract their sponsorship and refuse to pay the remaining $45 million left on their contract with the team. Other sponsors such as Bank of America and PepsiCo made similar demands in a letter to the organization, signed by a total of 87 shareholders and investors. Corporations like Nike and Amazon also threatened to stop the production and distribution of merchandise affiliated with the Washington franchise. NFL officials had reportedly been approaching owner Dan Snyder over changing the name since May, with formal talks being in place since June. A month later, after Snyder repeatedly said that he would never change the mascot, the franchise officially retired the “Redskins” name, along with the team logo and official team address (21300 Redskin Park Drive), and began the process of brainstorming a new name.


Currently sitting as the Washington Football Team in the months following the name change announcement fan polls popped up all over social media, some popular names have made themselves apparent. Some of the most favorable were Warriors, Red Wolves, Red Hawks and Generals, but one name stood out amongst the others: Red Tails.


The 332d Fighter Group, more commonly known as the Red Tails because of their distinctive crimson-painted fighter jet tails, was a U.S. Air Force squadron during World War II, manned by predominantly African American pilots. The group earned praise not just from the United States, but also from German enemies, who gave them the nickname “Schwarze Vogelmenschen” or “Black Birdmen,” for their skills in flying aircraft. 


NFL: Washington Redskins face pressure for name change, new stadium - Deseret News
Image via Dereset News

“Red Tails” seemed like the perfect solution for the organization, as it was not only a nod towards the US Military (whom Dan Snyder regularly praises), but also a symbol of respect towards the African American community. As of the writing of this article, however, the team has yet to make a formal change, with new reports suggesting that they may remain as the “Washington Football Team” permanently. Some have cited trademark issues for the lack of a name change, with the added obstacle of a Virginia man holding 44 trademarks over possible names standing in their way. Dan Snyder has a reputation of not doing the right thing, whether it’s selling expired peanuts at games, having Trent Williams’ cancer misdiagnosed, raising ticket prices after 9/11, or trading the team’s entire future for RG3. It would not be unlikely for the notoriously stingy and cheap owner to put his foot in the ground, and deny the fans of a catchy new name and mascot, retaining the name of “Football Team” as a permanent solution. 

As a League that has been dealing with racial issues for several years now, the battle over the naming of the Washington Football Team is not surprising. The name has been publicly viewed as a problem for years, yet true action is only being taken now. Both Dan Snyder and the NFL need to realize that we are in an ever changing world, with mindsets being grown on seemingly a daily basis. The changing of the name for Washington has been long overdue, and the renaming saga will most likely overshadow the performance of the team until they reach the same level of glory as in years past and truly establish a new era of football in the Nation’s Capital.