Hail to the Redtails?

The sudden and widespread change in public opinion on systemic racism is not only toppling monuments and forcing a reconsideration of how we enforce our laws. It’s also creating more pressure on holdout sports teams to drop troublesome nicknames.

On the face of it, team names are a minor matter, but such casual use of racial identity and stereotypes helps embed the attitudes that enable and support systemic racism.

No nickname in America’s major sports is more troubling than that of the NFL team in the nation’s capital. The Washington Redskins’ very name is a racial slur. Coming in close behind is this race for distastefulness would be baseball’s Cleveland Indians, less for the name than for its decades-long embrace of a racial caricature as the team emblem.

The Cleveland team has officially dropped “Chief Wahoo” as its primary logo, but it continues to sell merchandise emblazoned with the cartoon figure, and the sincerity of the lengthy phaseout has been questioned. But last week the team announced that it will now consider renaming itself. A total rebrand is the most obvious way to consign the Wahoo logo to the past.

Washington owner Dan Snyder, who has long insisted that he would never change the team nickname, has been forced to retreat. FedEx, a primary corporate sponsor, has publicly called for a new name, and Nike has pulled the team’s merchandise from its stores and website. Snyder is reported to have conceded to friends that a change is inevitable.

These nicknames have been attached to the teams for generations and are thus entangled in fan allegiance and emotions. The Indians moniker has been used since 1915, when the team — then known as the Naps in honor of superstar player-manager Napoleon Lajoie — sold off the aging legend. The Redskins name was already in place when the team moved to Washington in 1938. So there has been resistance to change despite years of criticism — but that resistance is, at long last, crumbling.

If change is coming, to what? Baseball teams in Cleveland’s distant past have borne, besides Naps, the names Spiders, Blues and — perhaps more relevant to the immediate incentive for change — the Buckeyes, a powerhouse Negro League team in the late 1940s. Naps is probably too sleepy a name to revive, Blues is in use by an NHL team and Buckeyes might face opposition from the Ohio State University athletic department. Spiders offers some interesting logo possibilities; we’ve already seen a mockup of a cap using the team’s current block C logo with a web design inside.

As for the football team, while many may favor the Hogs — in homage to the legendary offensive line that powered the franchise’s Super Bowl titles — we are taken by the Redtails. That would not only fit the team’s color scheme and require minimum reworking of the team song, “Hail to the Redskins,” but would honor the Tuskogee Airmen, a legendary World War II squadron of Black fighter pilots.

In this, as in so many aspects, overdue change is coming. Fans will do well to embrace it.

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